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Grizzly bear or black bear? Know the difference

Bear display at FWP
Posted at 2:13 PM, Apr 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-15 16:27:10-04

HELENA — It may not feel like it with the snow, but it is spring and the start of spring black bear hunting season. Even if you’re not a hunter, this is a great time to brush up on your bruin identification.

Montana is home to black bears and grizzly bears - but it is legal to hunt black bears, not grizzlies.

But black bears are not always black, and grizzlies are not always brown. Both can span the color wheel, which is why it is important to rely on a few other ID factors.

Black bears have a longer and straighter facial profile compared to the grizzly's more scooped snout. And while you’re looking at the head check out their ears - a grizzly will have smaller and rounder ears compared to their relative's longer ears.

Next is probably the most visible difference between the two: the shoulder hump. It's a distinguishing characteristic on a grizzly because of the big muscles they’ve developed for digging and turning over rocks.

On a black bear, this shouldn’t be as prominent.

Bear identification

If you come across bear tracks, take a straight edge and place it in front of the pad on the front foot, just behind the toe. If that line you make does not cross the toe on the opposite side, it’s probably a grizzly track. A good way to remember this is, you shouldn’t 'cross the line with a grizzly.' Black bears have more rounded paws and that line you make should cross over the toe.

It’s also very important to know if the bear you are looking at has cubs with her.

“It’s unlawful to take a bear that has cubs and we’re just asking hunters to please take that extra 5-10 minutes of observation to make sure that whatever bear they come across doesn’t have cubs with them," said Laurine Wolf of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. "It’s important for a couple of reasons. One, it’s for the long-term sustainability of this species. And we know that if a cub is orphaned at this time of year, they have a zero percent chance of survival.”

Remember that grizzly bears are federally protected, so knowing how distinguish between black and grizzly bears is a must.