Bear Identification: Knowing the Difference Between Grizzly and Black Bears
There are two bear species in the contiguous United States: black bears and grizzly bears. There are about 200,000 black bears and approximately 1,700 grizzly bears in the Lower 48 States. It is important to be able to distinguish between grizzly and black bears.
Center for Wildlife Information
Know Your Bears – look for a combination of characteristics
- Color varies from blond to black.
- No distinctive shoulder hump.
- Rump is higher than front shoulders.
- Face profile is straight.
- Ears are taller and less rounded than grizzly ears.
- Front claws are 1-2 inches long and curved to facilitate climbing.
- Color varies from blond to black.
- Distinctive shoulder hump.
- Rump is lower than shoulder hump.
- Face profile appears dished in.
- Ears are short and rounded.
- Front claws are 2-4 inches long, depending on the amount of digging the bear does, and are slightly curved. Claw marks are usually visible in tracks.
Color and size can be misleading and should not be used as identifying features.
Black bear or grizzly bear tracks?
The difference between grizzly bear and black bear tracks can be very subtle. However, the Palmisciano Line Method can help you to identify a grizzly bear track correctly.
If you come across what you think is a grizzly bear track, take a photograph and some measurements and call 1-888-WOLF-BEAR.
Black Bear Physical Appearance, Coat Color Confusion
Many are confused because the American black bear, Ursus americanus is often not actually black in color! In fact, “black” bears can be brown, cinnamon, blond, white (e.g. the Kermode or “spirit bear”) and even a bluish-gray (e.g. the “glacier bear”). The latter two colors are rare: spirit bears are found on the central coast of British Columbia, and the Glacier bear is only found in Alaska’s Yakutat Bay region.
West of the Cascade Mountain crest in Washington and Oregon, nearly all black bears actually have black coats. From the crest of the Cascade Mountains eastward into the dryer interior forest regions of the west coast, increasing numbers of black bears are brownish or cinnamon-colored or even blond! In Northeastern US forests, approximately 97 percent of black bears in the Northeast US are black. Black bears of the central states are increasingly brown in color, but still mostly black. The western states have the most variety of color phases, with half being brown (remember this when you see a brown-colored bear – it may not be a brown (grizzly) bear!).
Adult male black bears weigh approximately 250 pounds while adult females weigh an average of 140 pounds. Yearlings are normally 60-75 pounds when they emerge from their winter dens with their mother. Adults range from 5 to 6 feet long and are 2 to 3 feet tall at the shoulder.
Grizzly Bear Physical Appearance
The North American subspecies of the worldwide Brown Bear is the grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis. Grizzly bears are the second largest bear in North America after the polar bear. In the lower 48 States, the average weight of a grizzly bear is generally 400 to 600 pounds for males and 250 to 350 pounds for females.
The name “grizzly” is derived from the bear’s pale-color tipped guard hairs, the long, course outer hair forming a protective layer over the soft underfur. The overall coloration of grizzly bear fur varies from light brown to nearly black, and is influenced by nutrition, coat condition, spring shedding and new growth.
Grizzly bear claws are very robust and distinctively long. These large open-country bears use their long claws and extraordinarily powerful front legs to dig for nutritious plant roots, corms and bulbs, and for subterranean ground squirrels and marmots. Grizzly bears can be distinguished from black bears, which also occur in the lower 48 States, by their concave or “dished” facial profile, distinct shoulder hump, and their much longer claws.
Please report all grizzly bear observations and field sign to: 1-888-WOLF-BEAR
Take an online Bear ID test
The Grizzly Bear Outreach Project works with communities in the North Cascades and Selkirk Mountains to educate residents about;
- Black bear biology and behavior and grizzly bear biology and behavior
- how to keep bears away from your home
- what to do in an encounter with a bear
If you live in the North Cascades or Selkirks and would like a presentation on black bears or grizzly bears, please contact us.