Black Bear

Is it a black, brown, blonde, white, cinnamon, or blue-grey bear? Well, unless you are living or hiking in Western Canada or states northwest of Wyoming, regardless of its color, it is a black bear, as they come in a wide variety of colors. Clearly the name black bear is a bit misleading, but there are characteristics that set them apart outside of their color.

Black Bears are native to and are the most widely present species of bear in North America. They can be found across all ecological zones: forested areas, coastal beaches, and alpine regions.

According to the National Park Service, black bears have these unique characteristics:

Unique Physical Distinctions

  • Shoulder lies level or flat with back lacking the shoulder hump of brown bears.
  • Rump is higher than front shoulders.
  • Face profile is straight from between the eyes to the tip of the muzzle.
  • Ears are taller and more oval shaped and can appear to be very prominent on the head.
  • Front claws are less than 2 inches long and curved.
  • Toes are separated and fairly arced. A line drawn under the big toe across the top of the pad runs through the top half of the little toe on black bear tracks. Claw marks do not always show in the tracks.

Black bears are smaller than brown bears, standing 2-3.5 feet at the shoulder when on all fours and weighing in between 175 and north of 500 pounds depending on gender and region.

Unique Behavioral Distinctions

  • Black bears have a heightened sense of curiosity. Though their curiosity may spark encounters, black bears in general tend to be less assertive than brown bears. Even when it comes to caring for cubs, black bears will often hide and keep their distance if humans are around. With that said, any-and-all encounters should be taken with a serious note of caution and preparation.
  • Different than a grizzly bear, if a black bear ever should approach you with what seems like a less than curious intent, DO NOT try to run away. Remember, they are fast and you will not be able to outrun a bear. Oh, one other word of caution, DO NOT climb a tree. Black bears are excellent climbers. Climbing a tree to protect yourself may result in them following you up the trunk if they desire.[v]
  • By nature, however, black bears tend to flee rather than fight when faced with conflict. Therefore, in such an unlikely encounter, make yourself look bigger while making noise by yelling or banging equipment together. The sounds alone can intimidate or scare off a black bear. You might even consider grabbing a stick or a hiking pole and shake it around. If, however, a black bear becomes aggressive or persists in approaching you, throw stones or anything you can find. And if for some reason that does not deter the bear, be ready with Bear Spray. Bear Spray should be a last resort but having it handy can provide extra options for reacting to bears on your adventures.

On a Black Bear’s Menu

Despite the teeth and claws, black bears are omnivores and eat grass, plants, fruit, nuts, insects, larvae, honey, fish, small mammals, and scavenge left over prey of other predatory animals. Occasionally they will kill young deer or moose calves. Of course, if they have access to human or pet food, they will love it and will seek it out. They will also eat anything that smells like food, including plastic and potentially glass.

Grizzly Bear

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.