As a guide in Yellowstone National Park, it’s very important for myself as well as my guests to be able to tell the differences between a black bear and a grizzly bear. Why? In a bear encounter on a trail, you handle a grizzly bear differently than a black bear, and this handling can be the difference between a peaceful encounter and a more unpleasant experience. Read on to see if you came up with the same major differences between blacks and grizzlies that I did.
First of all, did you think that you could tell the difference between a black and a grizzly by the color and size? Well, maybe – but this doesn’t always work. Despite the “black” bear’s given name, it can actually range in color from blonde to black and everything in between. The same goes for a grizzly, which most people think of as being a brown bear. The size is also a good indicator of the species – sometimes. Grizzlies are usually bigger than black bears in their full grown state, but this isn’t always the case. I’ve seen some pretty huge black bears in my time in the Park! Let’s move on to discover the physical differences between a black and a grizzly.
The number one thing I look for first and foremost is the telltale hump between a grizzly bear’s shoulders. A black bear will not have that hump, but in comparison to a grizzly bear, it will appear to slump. And a black bear’s back end, or rump, will appear to be higher than its front end. When it comes down to it, I think to myself “Grizzly Bear = Hump, Black Bear = Rump”. You can imagine how the kids on our Yellowstone Family Adventure have fun with this word play!
Secondly, I look at the face/head of the bear. When looking at the bear from the side, you will notice that a black bear has a straight face profile while a grizzly has a dished face profile. Also, a grizzly has short, round ears while a black bear has taller, longer ears.
Last but not least, you can tell by a bear’s claws as to whether it’s a grizzly or a black. A grizzly’s long, light-colored claws are good for digging while a black bear’s short, dark claws are perfect for climbing trees. However, if you can tell which kind of bear you’re looking at by its claws, you are FAR too close to that bear for comfort! Always stay at least 100 yards (the length of a football field) away from any bear if you can help it. I always use “The Thumb Rule” with the kids on my trips. With a bear (or any wildlife) if you stick your arm straight out in front of you with your thumb up, your thumb should cover the entire bear which means you’re far enough away for safety. If the bear appears around the edges of your thumb, it’s time to slowly back up to get to a safer distance.
There you have it, a full list of physical characteristics for when you head out on your next Austin-Lehman Montana or Wyoming Adventure. Remember, you can’t always tell a grizzly and a black bear apart from their size and color, but you should be able to see the differences in the “hump” and “rump,” face profile, ears, and claws.
Your friendly bear-lover,