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The Differences Between Grizzly And Black Bears


Fri Sep 29 00:00:00 MDT 2000

Montana's fall black bear season opens in September or October in areas for which a fall hunt is authorized. With the opening, hunters take on the responsibility of knowing how to recognize the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear.

That's because there is no grizzly bear hunting season in Montana, yet grizzlies are found in some areas where black bear hunting is permitted.

There are three telltale characteristics that can be used to distinguish a grizzly from a black bear: long front claws, a prominent hump between the front shoulders and the shape of the head. Of the three, the shoulder hump is the best tip-off.

"Look for a hump," says Mike Madel, wildlife biologist. Most adult grizzly bears have a prominent hump on their back between the front shoulders. It is a mass of muscle and an indication of the animal's great strength. Black bears have no prominent shoulder hump. A black bear's highest point, when it's on all fours, is the middle of its back.

Long front claws are also a good method of telling a grizzly from a black bear, but they can be difficult to see. Originally inhabitants of the Great Plains, grizzlies evolved long claws on their front feet for digging up roots and insects to eat and for excavating a winter den. The claws of an adult grizzly can be longer than a human being's fingers. Even a yearling grizzly often has claws longer than those on an adult black bear.

The third characteristic, a grizzly's "dish-shaped" face, while important to know can be hard to identify for some hunters. "A dished face is a difficult thing to pick out," Madel says. The dish appearance comes from a grizzly's forehead, which is usually concave. In contrast, a black bear's face may appear straight and long; from the front, the face and forehead appear round.

"The most important thing is the hump," Madel emphasizes.

Fur color and size of a bear are not good methods for identification. Grizzly bears may be any shade of brown, ranging from blond to nearly black. Many grizzlies are silvertipped but not all. To further complicate matters, black bears, despite their name, are not always black. They can be brown, cinnamon or blond.

As for size, a full grown black bear can weigh from 100 to 300 pounds, sometimes more; while an adult grizzly might tip the scales anywhere from 200 to 700 pounds. Mix that overlap with the dim light of an early morning or late afternoon hunt, and it's hard to judge the size of an animal.

As in all types of hunting, bear hunters must be keenly aware of their target. That is especially important given the similarity of black bears to grizzlies. If there is any doubt, don't shoot. Hunters are also reminded they cannot take female black bears with young and individual cubs. Young are defined as two years old or younger. It's better not to shoot, if you cannot make a good identification, than to guess.