Black bear or grizzly: tell the difference with these 3 tips

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You’re out on the trails and you’ve spotted a bear, you are convinced it’s a black bear, but your friend seems to think it is a grizzly. 

Despite several differences between the two, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference at first glance, but it is vital to know the difference between certain species of animals such as bears because it will change how you should handle encountering an animal on the trails.

Grizzly bear or black bear: What’s the difference?

Coat colour is often the first thing people look for when trying to identify black bears and grizzly bears, but that is the most unreliable way to tell the difference between the two species.

In fact, black bears can be black, brown, cinnamon, or blond. Then there are some that are white, known as the Kermode, or spirit, bear that famously inhabits the central and northern coast of BC.

Grizzlies, on the other hand, can range from pale reddish brown to dark brown to black. Just to confuse matters!

So, if you can't rely on colour, how do you tell the difference?

3 tips for telling the difference between black and grizzly bears

There are three key indicators to tell if a bear is a grizzly or a black bear:

1. Shoulder size
Grizzlies will have a very pronounced shoulder hump, which black bears will never have.
 


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2. Face profile
The face of the two bears also differs greatly with a grizzly tending to have a more concave face with rounded ears. Black bears will have a narrow more pointed face with tall pointed ears. 

3. The size of their claws
The last key indicator is the claws, a grizzly will have much larger claws, almost double the size of a black bear's. Obviously, you will want to check their tracks to compare (if you're able to tell the difference in claw size looking at the animal, you're far too close!). Grizzly tracks also tend to be more square than black bear tracks.

Which is which? Test your bear identification skills:
 

  • Black Bear grazing in meadow
    Longer ears, no hump - yep, this one is a black bear, despite its brown colouring.
  • Grizzly bear in meadow
    Big shoulder hump, short, round ears: here we have a grizzly.


Spotting a bear from a distance or the safety of your car, you can easily search up these instructions on your phone if you want to identify the bear. 

However, on the trail, things are different. You first need to establish that you are at a safe distance, or in a safe place, before admiring these beautiful creatures. 

For more on bear safety, read up on bear safety in this story

 


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