Is It a Grizzly Bear or a Black Bear? Hiking in Glacier Park, Hiking in Yellowstone Park, Hiking in Grand Teton National Park

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Is It a Grizzly Bear or a Black Bear?
While enjoying your Glacier Park Hikes, Yellowstone Park Hikes and Grand Teton Hikes, understanding the difference in appearance between a grizzly bear and a black bear is very important.  Both types of bears can be dangerous, but statistically it seems that grizzly bears tend to present more of a potential problem more frequently on a hiking trail than a black bear.  With this being said however, even though there are more recorded “attacks” by grizzly bears, it has been determined that if a black bear indeed decides to attack, the likelihood of the hiker not surviving this attack is greater than if it were a grizzly bear.  Therefore, having great respect for both species of bears is critical while hiking in Glacier Park, hiking in Yellowstone Park, and hiking in Grand Teton National Park.

Color is Never An Indication!
A fair amount of Glacier Park, Yellowstone Park and Grand Teton Park visitors think that a brown or tan colored bear is always a grizzly bear, and a black colored bear is always a black bear.  This is absolutely not the case.  Black bears can be blonde, tan, brown, cinnamon, fudge, black, or a combination of these colors. Grizzly bears can also be blonde, tan, brown, cinnamon, fudge, black, or a combination of these colors. Grizzlies generally are tannish-brown in color with silvery tips at the end of each hair that glisten in the sun, but this is just a generalization… we’ve seen reddish colored grizzlies, black grizzlies, blonde grizzlies brown grizzlies, cinnamon grizzlies, and combinations of all these different colors.  The bottom line is this:  The color of a bear means NOTHING when trying to determine if it’s a grizzly bear or a black bear.

What About Size?
Grizzly bears are generally larger than black bears.  However, many large adult male black bear are larger than two-year-old grizzlies (known as sub-adults) who just got “thrown out of the nest” by their mother.  So obviously, the age of the bear has a lot to do with the size of the bear.  And if you’re out hiking on a trail, and you’ve never seen a bear in the wild, every bear, no matter how small or young, will look gigantic to you.

For example, we were hiking along the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail in Glacier National Park a few summers ago, and a gentleman came running down the trail screaming that a monstrous 1,000 pound grizzly bear was coming, and we should run for our lives.  As this terrified hiker ran past us, we paused and looked up the trail.  Not seeing anything, we had our bear spray ready to go and simply kept hiking.  A few hundred yards further up the trail, we saw this “1,000 pound grizzly”, eating berries about 20 yards off the trail.  This bear was actually a two year old black bear that was tan in color, and weighed only 80 pounds at the very most.  Again, if you’ve never seen a bear in the wild, your first bear will look HUGE, so “size” will not help you determine if it’s a black bear or a grizzly bear.

The Hump
The large hump on a grizzly bear’s shoulders is a very good defining characteristic.  Back in the day, grizzly bears used to live on the prairie, and their primary way of obtaining food was by digging.  This large hump on its shoulder is actually a huge muscle that helps the grizzly dig.

Black bear do not have this large hump above their shoulders.  However, they do indeed have shoulders!  Occasionally we’ll hear hikers mention the hump on a black bear that we’re all watching along the trail, thinking it’s a grizzly bear.  What they were seeing was the black bear’s shoulders.  The “hump” on a grizzly is far more prominent and obvious than a black bear’s shoulders.  So when you see a bear that has a large hump above his/her shoulders that is very pronounced, it’s a grizzly bear.

Black bear tend to have “dog-like” ears, that are longer and more pointed than a grizzly bear.  Grizzly bears have short, round ears, and are smaller in proportion to the rest of the grizzly bear’s head.  The ears of a black bear are larger in proportion to the rest of the black bear’s head.  So if you see small round ears on a bear, you’re probably looking at a grizzly bear.

Facial Profile
Grizzly bears have a dish-shaped forehead, which creates a prominent forehead profile that angles sharply downward to the base of the nose.  The nose will then project nearly 90 degrees (horizontal) from the downward slope of the forehead.  A black bear’s facial profile is more of a straight line all the way from the top of its head to the tip of it’s nose.  There is no prominent forehead distinction with a black bear.  So if you see a bear with a prominent forehead that sweeps steeply down to the base of the nose, it’s more than likely a grizzly bear.

Claw Length
Grizzly bears have extremely long claws that are usually light in color, sometimes even white.  Again, grizzlies were originally prairie animals, and they used these long claws along with their extremely strong shoulder muscles (the hump) to dig for food.  Grizzly bears still do a lot of digging for food, and frequently use these digging “tools” while digging for food.  The length of a grizzly bear’s claws will vary, but can be anywhere from 3 to 5 inches in length, sometimes even longer.  If you can see the grizzly bear’s paws, you will definitely see the claws protruding from them.

Black bear on the other hand have rather short claws, and are quite dark in color.  They are so short that you can usually barely see them protrude from the black bears’ paws.  The length of a black bear’s claws are anywhere from 1 to at the most 3 inches, and are not nearly as visible as a grizzly bear’s claws.

But when looking at a bear’s claws, think about what a park ranger once told us…. If you’re close enough to a bear to notice its claws, you’re way to close!!!

Once you’ve determined that the bear you’re looking at along the trail during one or more of your Glacier Park Hikes, Yellowstone Park Hikes, or Grand Teton Hikes, then what?  Well, that information will be covered in detail in a future article.  But the three most important things you can do to avoid a problem with a bear while hiking in Glacier Park, hiking in Yellowstone Park, or hiking in Grand Teton Park, are as follows:

The larger your hiking party, the less likelihood of a problem.  At least hike with one other person, but preferably two.  By the way, there has never been a day-time grizzly bear attack in the national parks on a party of four or more people.

Nearly all bear attacks on hiking trails occur because the hiker or hikers surprised the bear.  By talking loud along the trail, this tells the bear you are in the area.  This dramatically decreases the chances of surprising the bear, and consequently dramatically reduces the chances of an encounter.  By the way, “bear bells” have been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to NOT work, and they actually can create curiosity, which is not a good thing.  So leave the bear bells at home.  The HUMAN VOICE as been proven to be the most effective way of letting a bear know that you are in the area, so as not to surprise it.

By talking loud along the trail, you will not only dramatically decrease the chance of a bear attack, but you will also dramatically decrease the chances of even seeing a bear.  This is because when a bear knows in advance that a human is coming, the bear will usually get out of the way to avoid being seen…. so you may never even know there was a bear in the area.

Personally, when we are enjoying the many Glacier Park Hikes, Yellowstone Park Hikes and Grand Teton Hikes, our goal is to actually NOT see a bear on the trail by talking loud the entire way.  And by the way, it usually works… but because we hike over 1,300 miles each year in grizzly country, we definitely see our share of bears in the back country… but most of the time they know we’re coming and are not surprised by our presence because we talk loud.

Every hiker in your party needs to carry their own bear spray, and every hiker in your party needs to know how to use it.  A future article will show you exactly how to properly use your bear spray in the event that a serious problem develops with a bear along the trail.

To wrap up this article, when you are enjoying Glacier Park Hikes, Yellowstone Park Hikes, or Grand Teton Hikes, or anywhere there are grizzly bears around, it is important for you to be able to identify whether the bear is a grizzly bear or a black bear.  The hump, sharply dished forehead, long claws and small, round ears are the main characteristics of a grizzly bear.  The above information should help you make this determination in the field.  What to do next will be covered in a future article, but the three most important things to do while hiking in grizzly country to AVOID a problem is to never hike alone, always talk loud, and always carry bear spray and know how to use it.

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