Most people won’t ever need this information in a an emergency setting–unless they do and it saves their lives.
Giving a bear ample space (think half a football field) will prevent the vast majority of negative encounters, however there are times when a bear might not give you this option. It’s not uncommon for bears to be distracted by tasty berries near a trail and they can be startled when hikers appear. Black bears, grizzly bears–and for that matter, polar bears–all require specific knowledge on how to act. So knowing the difference really could be the difference between a fun day in the woods (with some sick Insta shots?!) and fines, property damage, and injury (or death) to you or the bear.
First, something that is not super helpful in bear ID is their color. The name “black bear” is confusing because most black bears on the west coast are brown in color. I know. I’m not in charge of naming things. Black bears are the most common bear in the United States. On the east coast they’re almost all jet black but on the west coast 80% of black bears are brown (or blonde, or cinnamon). These brown-colored black bears may be mistaken for grizzly bears (which are confusingly called brown bears by some). It’s a whole thing.
Second, size won’t help you either. Yes, grizzlies are often bigger, but unless you routinely weighing large animals for fun it can be difficult to accurately gauge the size of a bear in a pinch (or in the dark, or when you’re scared, or if the bear is far away). Even if you are very good at estimating the weight of things, grizzly and black bear sizes can overlap. People imagine all bears as giant monsters but I routinely hear people mistake adult black bears as cubs.
For your own personal trivia knowledge, female black bears will typically weigh around 125-150 lbs, while a good sized male will typically hit around 250-300 lbs. On the other hand, female grizzly bears weigh between 200-400 lbs and males weigh 300-700 lbs but can get up to 1,700lbs. You probably know people in (some of) those weight classes. Imagine how big they’d be on all fours. With hair.
Ok, so now that I’ve given you two items that won’t be helpful….
The first easy step in black bear/grizzly ID: Location, location, location. If you see a brown-colored bear in the United States you can be virtually 100% positive it is actually a black bear unless you’re in Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, Montana or Alaska, and even then the vast majority of Idaho, Washington and Wyoming are grizzly-free. Note that California, which has a grizzly on the state flag, and Colorado, which just seems like grizzly country, are also totally grizz-free. They didn’t used to be but their populations were hunted out by the 1920’s-50’s. There are also grizzlies in Western Canada but I assume Canadians are born with this knowledge and wouldn’t need this article to begin with.
The second easy step: Those lovely grizzly humps. Check ‘em out. Grizzly bears have a distinctive hump on their shoulder that black bears lack. That anatomical feature is a big hunk of muscle they use to give themselves exceptional power for digging. Surprisingly to many people, grizzly bears actually evolved in the plains, where digging for roots and insects comprised a large chunk of their diet.
Ok. I know I said I’d give you two easy steps—and I did!—but below are extra clues, not always as fast and easy, that you can use if you have the time and space to safely view your bear.
A black bear’s rump tends to be higher than the shoulder when viewed in profile, while a grizzly has the opposite arrangement. Black bears also have a sloped face in profile, while grizzlies are dished out where the skull meets the snout. There is also a difference in the claws but I sincerely hope you’re never close enough to inspect those thoroughly. Again, most people find it hard to distinguish this when they’re frightened, or if the animal is moving and at a distance, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include these.
So that’s it. If you don’t remember anything else, remember your location, and look for those lovely grizzly humps.