Where Hunting Happens, Conservation Happens™

Can You Identify Grizzly Bears from Black Bears?

By PJ DelHomme 

Grizzlies are still protected by the Endangered Species Act in the Lower 48 states. However, as they continue their already-robust recovery, these ornery bruins are popping up in mountain ranges and drainages where they haven’t been seen in a century.

Black bear hunters hunting anywhere close to grizzly country must be 100 percent sure that the bear they’re hunting isn’t a grizzly. That's why we’ve put together some of the best resources out there to help you tell the difference between grizzlies and black bears. At the end, put your skills to the test with a bear identification quiz.

Why Does It Matter?

Hunters always have to be certain of their target, and bears are no exception. Mistakenly killing a grizzly brings with it a mountain of legal issues, fines, paperwork, and heartache—for you and bear recovery efforts. The current reality is that it is illegal to kill them in the Lower 48, Alberta, and British Columbia.


First, you need to understand where grizzly and black bear ranges overlap. If you’re hunting the Lower 48 outside of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, your chance of seeing a griz are slim—but not impossible. This map provides a rough idea of where grizzlies roam, which is also home to more than a few black bears.

Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones and Estimated Occupied Range as of 2022.

In Canada, the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, and the Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories, are home to grizzlies. For records purposes, the Boone and Crockett Club has designated much of Alaska’s interior as grizzly country. As of 2022, hunters are allowed to hunt grizzlies in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and Alaska, with First Nations peoples being eligible to harvest bears in a few additional places.

The boundary separating grizzly bear (green) and Alaska brown bear (tan). Map from How to Score North American Big Game, 5th Edition.

Physical Appearance

Not all black bears are black, and not all grizzly bears are grizzled, according to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks’, Montana Bear ID Tips. Coat color is the least reliable characteristic for identifying bears. Grizzlies can be pale, blond, or reddish blond, light brown, darker brown, or even almost black. To make matters more uncertain, black bears are not always black. They can also be brown, cinnamon, blond, or a combination of light and dark hair. Size is another poor indicator because it varies with sex, diet, and age. A combination of physical traits helps in identification.

For hunters viewing from a distance, there are three main physical differences between black and grizzly bears: body shape, face, and claws.

The Hump

Adult grizzlies generally have a hump between their front shoulders. This hump is a mass of well-developed shoulder muscles used for digging and turning over rocks. Black bears do not have the tell-tale hump. When walking on all fours, the highest point of a black bear’s body is its rump. For grizzlies, the highest point is the hump between the front shoulders. Black bears may appear to have a hump if their head is near the ground, such as when feeding.


Face and Ears

Adult grizzlies generally have a dished face profile, meaning that the end of their nose can resemble a skateboard launch ramp. The grizzly's face appears broader (when seen full front) than that of the black bear. Contrast this with the black bear's less-exciting long, fairly straight profile. It does not look like a launch ramp. The ears of a grizzly will typically be smaller and more rounded. On black bears, their ears will appear larger, longer, and pointed.

Claws and Tracks

If you’re close enough to a grizzly to see its giant claws, then we wish you the best. Sometimes, their claws can be so long that they are actually easy to see from afar. On an adult grizzly, the front claws are gently curved, often light-colored, and typically 2-4 inches long. They are adapted for digging roots and excavating a winter den. The claws of an adult grizzly can be longer than a person’s finger.

Black bears' claws are seldom longer than 1½ inches. The shorter claws allow them to climb more easily and tear into rotten logs for insects. The toes of a grizzly bear are closer together, and those of a black bear are more separated. The combination of the spacing between toes and the length of claws makes the tracks of the bears fairly easy to distinguish.


The front foot of a grizzly tends to look more square than a black bear’s, which appears rounded. If you draw a straight line across the top of the foot pad, the line will not intersect the toes of a grizzly bear. A straight line drawn across the top of a black bear's front paw pad will intersect the toes. A grizzly's claws will reach 2-4 inches from the ends of the toe pads. Black bear middle claw marks will be 1-2½ inches from the end of the toe pads.

Take the Test

We hope that we’ve done our job and given you all the information you need to pass the test provided by Montana FWP. Good luck! 

PJ DelHomme writes and edits content from his home in western Montana. He runs Crazy Canyon Media and Crazy Canyon Journal


Additional B&C Bears Material 

Adventures from the Archives


Marguerite McDonald’s Grizzly Bear - Montana 1964


Ben Lilly’s Black Bear - Louisiana 1904

World's Record Black Bear

B&C World's Record Black Bear

World's Record Grizzly Bear

B&C World's Record Grizzly Bear


Grizzlies Scratchin’ the Itch on the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch

Grizzly Bears of Montana, Second Edition

Montana is bear country, with the grizzly bear being the official state animal. Grizzly bears in Montana are an iconic native species with high value to people and cultures across the state and around the world, and they play important roles in Montana ecosystems and economies. Today, Montana has the largest remaining grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states.


Regular Price: $10.00

Join today and save 20%


Support Conservation

Support Hunting

Support Conservation

Support Education

"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt