If the bear you encounter in the non-arctic wilderness is not a black bear, then it is a grizzly bear also known as a brown bear. grizzly bears have come in less color variation than black bears, but there are still slight color differences across the species ranging between dark brown and light yellowish.
According to the US National Park Service, all grizzly bears are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzly bears. Regardless of them being of the same species, grizzly bears are currently considered to be distinct because of the difference of their geographic location, which influences diet, size, and behavior.
Those that live in coastal areas of Alaska are called brown bears, while North American inland bears that have limited or no access to marine-derived food resources are often smaller and called grizzlies.
Other than the geographic distinction, the distinction between a grizzly bear and a brown bear is somewhat of an arbitrary determination, as both have the same distinctive physical characteristics.
Unique Physical Distinctions
- Distinctive shoulder hump.
- Rump is lower than shoulder hump.
- Face profile appears dished in between the eyes and tip of the snout.
- Ears are short and round.
- Front claws are slightly curved and 2-4 inches longs, depending on how much digging the individual bear does.
- Toes are close together and form a fairly straight line. A line drawn under the big toe across the top of the pad runs through or below the bottom half of the little toe on grizzly/brown bear tracks. Claw marks are often visible in the tracks.
- Brown bears are larger than black bears, standing 3-5 feet at the shoulder when on all fours and weighing in between 800-1600 pounds depending on gender and region.
Unique Behavioral Distinctions
- Brown bears are typically bigger and tend to be more aggressive than black bears. With that said, brown bears are generally defensive and not overtly aggressive. In fact, most brown bear encounters that turn assertive usually involve a mother bear protecting her cubs (it is smart to be extra careful during the months of May through June when mothers are raising their young).
- If an encounter with a brown bear begins to turn uncomfortably assertive, your response should be vastly different than with that of a black bear. First, DO NOT run, they can easily outrun you and running may agitate them. Second, If the bear stands tall in curiosity, move away slowly. If the bear continues to follow you, continue to stand your ground, and to the absolute best of your ability stay calm. Do nothing that might encourage or incite the bear to any sort of aggression. With a brown bear, you DO NOT want to make yourself look tall, or grab a stick, or do anything that looks like you are challenging this natural protector.
- If the bear begins to charge at you and you have no bear spray, it is best to fall into a fetal position, while protecting your head, neck, and stomach. In effect, play dead. If the perceived threat to the bear is minimized, then they just might retreat. The bear needs to believe that any perceived threat is gone, remember, they are fierce protectors.
- Experts recommend that hikers in bear country bring along Bear Spray and have it handy. Spray can deter, slow, or stop a bear in its tracks, but that should be a last resort and reserved for life threatening scenarios.
On a Grizzly/Brown Bear’s Menu
Brown Bears are omnivores, despite the fact that they are at the top of the natural food chain with no enemies except humans. They prefer to eat without putting forth a lot of energy into catching prey. They seek out moths, white bark, pine nuts, ungulates, and salmon or trout. Seasonality and food availability can prompt brown bears to hunt other animals mostly that are weak or young. For the most part, through the height of summer they stick to plants, insects, fish, and scavenge left over prey of other predatory animals.
Coastal brown bears eat a lot of salmon, whereas a grizzly bear’s diets are about 75% vegetarian. In and around Yellowstone Park, where there is an abundance of bison and elk, their diet is meatier. Their long, curved claws and powerful shoulders (evidenced by their characteristic back hump) are well-suited for digging up and hunting for their food sources.