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Oldest-Known Wild Bear in the World Dies in Minnesota at Almost 40 Years of Age

Black bear and cub (Nat Geo Archives)

The world’s oldest-known wild bear has died of natural causes in the Chippewa National forest near Marcell, which is about 28 miles north of Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

Black bears range through much of the northeastern part of the state, which is comprised of mostly coniferous forest.

The radio-collared female American black bear was known as Bear Number 56 to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife research biologists. The sow apparently died of natural causes according to my colleague Karen Noyce, a prominent career research scientist with the DNR and a distinguished bear biologist. Bear Number 56 was 39.5 years old when she expired.

With access to world-class veterinary care, regular dental cleaning, a year round and healthy diet, compatible playmates and the compassion of human caregivers, it is not uncommon for a bear—born, and raised or otherwise cared for in captivity—to live forty years or more. But the wild can be an unforgiving place. The average longevity of a wild American black bear is just a fourth of the age attained by Bear Number 56. It is not so common for a wild bear to die of old age.

There are estimated to be about 600,000 individual American black bears in North America, approximately half of which are found in the United States.   Minnesota is home to about 30,000 black bears, the only species of bear found in the state.  About 3,000 of these black bears are harvested annually; the average age of those hunted is 4 years.

Prior to this record lifespan for a wild bear, a wild brown bear (grizzly) from Alaska had been reported to have lived 34 years.

According to Noyce, Bear Number 56 was last handled in 2010 and presented with a healthy weight. Not surprising, her teeth were very worn, which incidentally is the best indicator of age for a captured wild bear.

Bear Number 56 was observed foraging in recent years, but had sensory deficits, presumably due to her advanced age. Deteriorating vision and hearing may have compromised her ability to get around very easily as suggested by Noyce.

The legendary bear, initially radio-collared at the age of seven, managed to outlive 360 other collared bears in the DNR’s long term study of black bear ecology, which was launched back in 1981. From 1981 to 1995 Bear Number 56 reared 22 cubs in the 8 litters she produced.  Twenty-one of these cubs survived to 18 months of age, which is about when black bears leave their mothers.

Most adult bears do not reach this advanced age because of anthropogenic factors.  Bear Number 56 managed to luck out and is the first bear in the telemetry study to have died of old age.  The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also requested that hunters refrain from harvesting any radio-collared bears and this may have contributed to her long lifespan.

The ecologists studying bears comprise a relatively small community of field scientists.  There are only 8 species of bears on Earth and most people tracking bears to study their behavior and movement to help conserve them know each other. Hence, Noyce and her colleagues were able to determine that Bear Number 56 was the oldest bear of any bear species in the world that had been studied and for which an age could be specified.

Bear 56 was thought of fondly by DNR staff who got to know her. She died in the wild as a wild bear should.

Note: Bear biologists will convene in Provo, Utah this month for the 22nd International Conference on Bear Research and Management

Update 9/3/13: Itasca Community Television presentation on Bear Number 56






  1. Eustacius
    Valparaiso,Indiana, USA
    June 15, 2014, 3:53 pm

    Just confirmed: State of Alaska Department of Fish and Game labels killing big game animals “hunting” not “harvesting”. It has an entire list of wild animals it lets tourists shoot:


    “Harvesting” is just a term to desensitize the act of killing another sentient being, like “Terminated with malice” etc. Somewhat like “ethnic cleansing” to soften genocide.

  2. Eustacius
    Valparaiso,Indiana, USA
    June 15, 2014, 3:28 pm

    I noticed the word “harvested” also. Whether anyone used the term prior to this article is irrelevant. Harvesting applies to plants. Fish are “caught”. Bears are trapped or shot. When a governor shoots wolfs from helicopters, she is not “harvesting”, she is shooting wild wolfs just because of ignorance. Very few people eat bears or monkeys, gorillas, whales, etc. I saw a video of a country music star “harvesting” a tame bear in an enclosure. National Geo needs to use appropriate terminology when identifying people who kill for sport or profit. “Harvesting” is not that word. It is just killing for the thrill of killing. So call it what it is, “Thrill killing”.

  3. sharkiasa
    sharkisha land
    April 24, 2014, 1:34 pm

    are byou sure this information is corect

  4. Jordan Carlton Schaul
    September 13, 2013, 11:29 pm

    Actually, they are “harvested” in states where they are designated as game animals. Note the word harvest here http://www.fws.gov/southeast/news/2013/009.html

  5. mandy
    September 12, 2013, 12:00 am

    what a strangely written article. Animals are not crops, therefore they are not ‘harvested’. I disagree with hunting, but whether you do or not please don’t use the wrong language. They are killed not harvested.

  6. Jordan Carlton Schaul
    September 10, 2013, 4:37 pm

    Thank you for asking. The bear died of natural causes.

  7. Tien
    September 5, 2013, 9:01 pm

    Just curious, how exactly did the bear die? Predation, accident, sleep, disease, etc, or we do not know the exact cause?

  8. Jordan Carlton Schaul
    September 3, 2013, 3:06 pm

    Thank you for noticing the typo, Chris. And thank you Beth for the link, which I added above.

  9. Beth George
    Grand Rapids MN
    September 3, 2013, 10:48 am

    This bear touched the heart of researchers and her neighbors in Northern Minnesota. A full-length program on this bear is available to watch at: http://watchictv.org/content/just-outdoors-bear-no-56

  10. Chris
    September 2, 2013, 9:30 am

    I’m sure it is a typo that the average age that a black bear cub leaves its mother is 18 years. I’m sure it is 18 months.