By Mike Willis
While it may not be hard to identify a bear, identifying a bear species proves to be a little more complicated. A common misconception is that you can identify a black bear because it’s black and a grizzly bear because it’s brown. Since bears have multiple color phases, this assumption is not reliable at all. To understand those subtle differences between a black bear and a grizzly bear, check out their differing traits below.
The next time that you see a bear track in the mud, stop and take a closer look. When inspecting the bear track, pay careful attention to the claws. Grizzlies have very long claws that will “print” further from the toe pads.
Black bear claws will begin to make contact with the dirt almost immediately past the toes. On the front track, a grizzly’s toes will all be forward of the main footpad. The black bear will have one toe back more than the others, actually behind the footpad’s leading edge.
The nose is a great differentiator between a grizzly bear and a black bear. The best way to determine the difference between the two bears’ noses is by looking at their side profile.
A black bear’s nose is straight and “in-line” with its forehead. Many people describe black bears as having a “Roman nose” because the bridge is quite pronounced. A grizzly bear’s snout appears to be smooshed in. Where the nose meets the eyes, you will observe the abrupt angle change in the grizzly bear’s face.
Another characteristic to look for is the ear shape and size. Grizzly bears have short, fuzzy, and rounded ears. A black bear’s ears are noticeably longer.
Grizzlies have very large heads. They are quite substantial when compared to their relative, the black bear. While head size alone is not sufficient for making a species determination, this observation provides supporting information to help build your case.
Grizzlies have a distinct hump on their back, right above their front shoulders. The hump over the front shoulders is taller than the rear-end of the grizzly bear. This hump is a large mass of muscles for foraging and humbling backpackers.
The black bear’s rump is the tallest thing on its body. When standing broadside, the black bear’s rear-end is noticeably higher than its shoulders. Identifying the highest point on the bear’s back is the fastest and most reliable way towards species identification.
Both black bears and grizzlies can have black, brown, blonde, and cinnamon hides. Therefore, the color of the bear’s hide is the least helpful trait to determine whether it is a grizzly or a black bear.
If you are hiking through the woods and encounter a bear, pray that it is a black bear! While all bears can be aggressive when accompanied by their young, grizzlies are known for being territorial and downright ornery at times. The grizzlies have a swagger and confidence that they can easily back up. While most encounters with bears end peacefully, grizzlies are the ones most likely to treat you like a chew toy.
Can you tell which kind of bear is in the picture below?
This picture is a good example of how difficult it can be to identify bear species. Often, you won’t have the luxury of seeing the bear from every angle. In the picture above, ear size and nose shape are your only distinguishable features.
While the nose is a little misleading in the picture, those long ears are a dead giveaway. This black bear is a sow (female), and she is soaking her bones in a hillside wallow.