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Ambassador Josh Boyd | 3.10.2020

Bear Identification Tips

  • Environment: Subalpine

A large bear stripped berries from the bushes as a morning sunbeam crested the horizon and changed what had earlier looked like black fur to the color of dark coffee. As he moved between bushes, each step made the hair on his blocky shoulders ripple in the sunlight. At first glance, his body shape looked more grizzly-like yet his head profile looked like a black bear. I spent several more minutes looking through the spotting scope to confirm my initial thought; he was a very large male black bear. Centering his shoulder in the rifle scope, I exhaled slowly and squeezed the trigger with confidence.

Bear in the openPhoto: Isaac Nelson

Every year, multiple grizzly bears are mistaken for black bears by hunters and killed. The end results are damage to grizzly bear populations and severe fines and court fees for the hunter. In order to fulfill my responsibility as an ethical hunter, I always go through a list of physical features to positively identify what kind of bear I’m looking at before shooting.

Recording a bear on an iPhone.Photo: Steven Drake

Body & Headshape

The first thing to look at is the body and head shape. Most of the time a grizzly will have a well-defined shoulder hump and a broad, dished-shaped face, while black bears will have a flattened back and a straight face profile. There are exceptions with big mature male black bears where their characteristics will more closely resemble a grizzly. They often have a shoulder hump, although the hump is usually less pronounced than a grizzly’s and a large head with small looking ears. The best identifier of a grizzly is the dished side profile of its head. Even very large male black bears usually don’t have this distinct trait.

Bear hunter in optifade subalpine.Photo: Steven Drake

Body Size & Color

Body size and hair color are two features I don’t rely on as much. Both species overlap in size depending on the age and physical condition of the bear in question. The color spectrum in both species overlap also and that variability is compounded with changing lighting conditions. In the example above, before the sun crested the mountain, I was sure the bear was solid black yet he turned out to be a color more common in grizzlies. Relying on color alone as a way to identify bear species is not reliable.

Photo: Steven Drake


One indicator that’s often hard to observe in the field, but can be visible in certain scenarios, is claw length and color. Grizzlies have noticeably lighter colored claws than black bears, and they are longer, approaching 4 inches in length. Black bear claws are usually 2 inches or shorter. In addition, the claw shape will differ. A grizzly’s claw will have a very slight curve to it, while a black bear’s claws will have a more drastic curve.

Photo: Steven Drake

Sex Identification

Another dilemma black bear hunters face every year is determining the sex of bears. Large mature males usually have a large blocky head, small-looking ears, a thick, short neck, and stocky legs. They walk with slow, unhurried movements and their belly appears to be close to the ground. Conversely, females and young bears will have a slender face, thin neck, narrow shoulders, and the ears appear larger and closer together. Their legs appear longer on their thinner bodies. They will typically act more nervous and frequently look over their shoulder. Often times, females will have cubs nearby but they may be out of sight while the mother feeds. This makes it paramount to carefully observe a bear before deciding whether or not to harvest the animal.

Photo: David Frame

The take-home message is to use caution and patience when field judging bears. Before pulling the trigger or dropping the bowstring, I will go over this identification list at least twice. This gives me time not only to make sure I don’t mistakenly shoot a grizzly, but also to see if the bear is a female possibly with cubs.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has a great Bear ID resource and ID Test on their website. Learn bear characteristics in and out. Memorize them. Take the test. Be careful and methodical in your field judging and make no mistakes this spring.