Is It A Grizzly Or A Black Bear? How To Tell The Difference

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Is It A Grizzly Or A Black Bear?  How To Tell The Difference

A fair number of visitors in Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park think that every blonde or tan colored bear is a grizzly, where in reality many of those bears are indeed black bears. YOU CAN’T GO BY COLOR! Black bears can be black, blonde, cinnamon, chocolate, fudge, tan, brown or combinations of several colors at the same time. Grizzlies can also be found in these same variation of colors.  Therefore, you cannot go by color when determining if a bear is a grizzly bear or a black bear.

The best way to determine if it’s a black bear or a grizzly is the bear’s physical features other than color. Black bears have a long, flat line from the top of their heads to the tip of their noses, whereas grizzlies have a large forehead and a prominent “dish” between their foreheads and their noses. Also, black bears have larger, “dog-like” pointed ears whereas grizzlies have relatively small, rounded ears.

One of the most prominent features of a grizzly bear is its large hump at the top of the shoulders, whereas a black bear’s shoulders are not nearly as “humped”.   If the bear you are looking at has a large shoulder hump, you are more than likely looking at a grizzly bear.

And the last big difference between black bears and grizzly bears are their length of claws. Grizzlies have extremely long, white or tan colored claws, up to 4 inches in length that can be seen from a distance, whereas black bear claws are only 1.5 inches in length, and are nearly impossible to see, even up close. (However, if you’re close enough to see any bear’s claws, your too close!!!)

We often get asked the question, “Why does it matter if it’s a black bear or a grizzly, shouldn’t you react the same way?” Well, it really does matter, especially if there is an attack.  Grizzly bears are DEFENSIVE animals, and will usually only attack if it feels it’s being threatened or its cubs are being threatened. Then when a grizzly does attack, it usually stops when the bear feels you are no longer a threat. That is why the NPS recommends that during an imminent attack, it is best to curl up in the fetal position and stay completely still.  We’ll talk more about what to do during a grizzly bear attack in an upcoming blog.

Black bears on the other hand are OFFENSIVE animals. This means that 99% of the time, when they confront a human they will run. In otherwords, when they feel threatened, they run from the threat.  A black bear attack is extremely rare.  HOWEVER, if a black bear does attack, this is actually an offensive act by the bear, and it is going to treat you as prey.  Therefore, if a hiker is ever attacked by a black bear, even though this is extremely rare, the hiker must fight for his or her life instead of “playing dead” because the bear is intending to kill you.  Now of course there are times when you definitely should not “play dead” during a grizzly attack as well, such as when a grizzly is actually stalking you as prey or when a grizzly comes into your camp at night, and we’ll talk about this on a future blog.

So remember, while hiking in Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park, which are home to both grizzly bears and black bears, you really should know how to tell the difference between them.  Grizzly bears and black bears definitely act and react in different ways, and knowing what you’re up against can prove to be very valuable.

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