Just two weeks ago – and many times over the past – I’ve heard people say they saw a grizzly bear along the road or out in the wilderness. In many cases I have asked why they were sure it was a grizzly bear and all too often the only reason is that it was brown in colour.
Colour does not help to distinguish one type of bear from another as both types of bears come in all the same colours. Being able to tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear is good from a personal knowledge perspective.
It is even more important because the bears typically behave differently when they meet a human and identification of species may help understand the bear’s behaviour and avoid an unpleasant and perhaps life-threatening situation.
In a close-up meeting a grizzly is generally more apt to be very aggressive while a black bear is more likely to leave the scene and avoid the situation. This is not a hard and fast rule as there are exceptions.
Various shades of brown and cinnamon are very common colours for both species of bears. A smaller brown coloured bear is likely a black bear because a “smaller” grizzly bear will be accompanied by it’s mother as they stay together for three years.
Size doesn’t help much as it might be a large black bear or a smaller grizzly bear. Size is very difficult to gauge anyway as you really have nothing to compare it to in order estimate it’s how big it is.
The really important clues are as follows:
A grizzly has a prominent shoulder hump while the highest part of a black bear’s back is at the rump. However in some postures the grizzly hump is not obvious, while a black bear standing with it’s front paws on a log or rock may appear to have a hump. In either case the posture will change when the bear moves and you will get a better view of the back profile.
Grizzly bears have a concave or dished facial profile from the forehead to the nose while a black bear generally has a straight profile from forehead to nose.
Grizzly bears grow very long claws suitable for digging and tearing up stumps, etc. They may be as long as your fingers. Black bears claws are much shorter and are more useful for climbing trees, which is a more common activity for black bears, but can also be done by grizzly bears. It is important to note that you have probably already made a big mistake if you are close enough to any bear to see the length of its claws.
It is very important to remember that all of the Yukon is bear country and that they are the permanent residents, while we are the visitors. Always be respectful of bears and other wildlife as our presence stresses them. I suggest that you always carry a bear-spray and learn its use and limitations.