How to Tell a Grizzly From a Black Bear (In Two Easy Steps)

Most people won’t need this information–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.

Bears are commonly distracted by tasty berries near a trail and can be startled when hikers appear. Black bears, grizzly bears–and, for that matter, polar bears–all require specific knowledge on how to act. Knowing your bears could be the difference between a fun day in the woods, and fines, property damage, and injury (or death) to you or the bear.

Below I’ll give you the quick and dirty tips you need to size up your situation.

First, the bear’s color is rarely helpful for ID. 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 weigh 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 for cubs.

For your personal trivia knowledge, female black bears 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.

Can you guess which type of bear? (Hint: view the chart at the end of the article for more clues)
Photo by Meredith Dennis

Ok, 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.

Both states had grizzlies at one point, but their populations were hunted out by the 1920s-50s. 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.

Grizzlies use this big hunk of muscle for digging. Surprisingly to many people, grizzly bears evolved in the plains, where roots and insects comprised a large chunk of their diet.

Observe the lovely grizzly hump. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by yellowstone.org

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.

The claws also differ, 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.

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