The Oldest Black Bear

The average age of a black bear in the wild is between 18 and 25 years, according to the American Bear Association. So it is unique to hear of a bear that has far exceeded those numbers. The world’s oldest known bear is over 39 years old. She was radio tagged in 1981 at the age of seven and has roamed the forests of the Bigfork-Marcell area of northern Minnesota since.

The StarTribuneof Minneapolis, Minnesota reports that the bear they call No. 56 “has trouble hearing and seeing and navigating the thick woods. So the bear is using roads and trails, and is more frequently encountering area residents. Because of those factors, researchers say she is now more vulnerable to being hit by a car or shot as a nuisance bear or by hunters — and they are asking residents for patience. They would like No. 56 to die of natural causes.”

Ben Romans of Field & Stream reports that Karen Noyce, Department of Natural Resources research biologist in Grand Rapids  said, “We’ve never seen a wild bear die of old age. It’s just extremely rare. We’re not going to crack any secrets, but it’s so rare to get an opportunity to watch a wild animal age normally. We’re trying to get the word out to everyone in that area. A lot of people already know about her.”

How rare is a 39-year-old black bear? After reviewing several states statistics, it appears that on average a black bear harvested by a hunter is between 4 and 5 years of age. Black bears on average for North America have a 25-30% cub mortality rate. Before No. 56 the oldest wild bear recorded was age 26 in Virginia. Although some bears have reached their forties in captivity, this is the first wild bear known to reach that mark.

No. 56 was a good mother, having 22 cubs in her lifetime. Most of her cubs survived their first year, marking her as a remarkable mother. 

Hunters have noticed this bear as she has come to several baits in her lifetime, but apparently age brings good common sense and she has survived not only a tough life in the wild but also a hunter’s bullet.

Now that the bear is so old, she is showing the effects of her age. Her hearing and vision is going and she walks as though she is drunk. Officials believe that she is comfortable and hope that she will die of old age rather than of the result of a run-in with humans. 

Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR.