Despite apparent differences in size and colour, grizzly vs black bear are often difficult to tell apart. Why is this important? Every year, black bear hunters kill several grizzly bears by mistake, which can have dire consequences for local grizzly bear populations.
It is also extremely important to know which species is which when you encounter a bear in your community or in the backcountry.
Black bears can be black, blue-black, dark brown, brown, cinnamon and even white. Grizzlies, likewise, may range in colour, from black to blond. Although grizzly bears are, on average, significantly larger than black bears, size is not a good indicator of which species is which. Male black bears in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park, for instance, can weigh up to 800 pounds in the fall, and female grizzly bears on Alberta’s Eastern Slopes can weigh as little as 250 pounds in the spring.
The best indicators are the size of the shoulders, the profile of the face and the length of the claws. The grizzly bear has a pronounced shoulder hump, which the black bear lacks. Grizzlies have a concave or “dished” facial profile, smaller ears and much larger claws than the black bear. Black bears have a flatter, “Roman-nose” profile, larger ears, no visible shoulder hump and smaller claws.
Not all black bears are black and not all grizzlies are “grizzled”
Despite the names grizzly and black, coat color is the least reliable characteristic for identifying bears. For instance, grizzlies may be pale—almost luminous blond, or reddish blond, light brown, darker brown, or almost black. To add to the confusion, the common name grizzly is derived from the term ”grizzled,” which refers to white-tipped hair. Grizzled hair occurs mainly on the back and shoulders; thus, from a distance, a grizzly bear appears to have darker legs and lighter upper parts. And to complicate matters just a bit more, black bears, despite their name, are not always black. They can also be brown, cinnamon, blond, or a combination of light and dark hair. Kermode/Spirit/Ghost bears, found in Northwestern BC, Canada, can be white.
Just like hair color, body size is unreliable for identification
Just like color, body size is also not a reliable indicator for identifying bears. Most people tend to overestimate the weight and size of bears. A typical adult female grizzly weighs 200-350 pounds and adult males weigh 300-650 pounds. An adult black bear, which can easily weigh 200-300 pounds, may not only weigh the same as a female grizzly but also be about the same height (3–3½ feet at the shoulder). Then too, an adult male black bear will be much heavier and taller than a young grizzly. And just in case it isn’t difficult enough yet, try to imagine yourself distinguishing a juvenile dark-haired grizzly from an adult cinnamon-colored black bear in the dim light of an early morning or the long dusky shadows of an early fall evening. Even under the best of conditions you’ll find it’s nearly impossible to judge the size and weight of a bear in the wild. Other characteristics such as diet, behavior, and habitat use are even less reliable because black bears and grizzly eat similar food, display similar behaviors, and occupy much of the same areas in some provinces and states.
Grizzly bears have well-developed shoulder muscles for digging and turning over rocks. These muscles appear as a prominent shoulder hump between the front shoulders, which is visible in profile. Black bears have no shoulder hump. A black bear’s highest point, when it’s on all fours, is the middle of the back or the rear, depending on how the bear is standing.
A grizzly typically has a concave or dishshaped profile that extends from between its eyes to the end of its nose. A black bear normally has a fairly straight profile from forehead to nose tip. A grizzly’s muzzle is broader and more prominent; their eyes appear closer together and deeper set. Black bears look more dog-like and have flatter, shorter fur. Grizzlies appear to have longer, fuzzier looking fur, especially on the face.
Grizzly bears have smaller, more rounded ears (in proportion to their head size), that are much fuzzier looking (the fur is longer). Whereas the ears of a black bear appear larger, longer, more erect, and pointed. As seen below, you will have to take into account, whether the angle at which you are looking at the bear. If the grizzly bear has been swimming, his/her ears will appear bigger relative to the wet head.
Long claws on the front paws are also a good way to differentiate a grizzly from a black bear. For obvious reasons, this method has its limitations! Grizzly bears have gently curved, often light-colored, two- to four inch long claws adapted for digging roots and excavating a winter den or small prey. The claws of an adult grizzly can be longer than a person’s finger. Black bears have shorter, more sharply curved, dark claws that are often much less than two inches long. These claws are well adapted for climbing trees and tearing into rotten logs in search of insects.
Compared to a black bear’s tracks, grizzly tracks of the front feet are more square. If you take a straight edge and hold it across the track of a grizzly front foot, just in front of the pad and behind the toe on either side, it will not cross the toe on the other side of the foot. A black bear front track is more rounded and a straight edge will cross the toe on the other side of the foot.
Take a test to see if you can tell the difference.
For more information about the world’s eight bear species, including black bears and grizzly bears, visit the website of the International Association for Bear Research & Management.