The bear moving through the brush has dark fur and weighs about 300 pounds. Is it a black bear or a grizzly?
Most people rely on size and coloring to identify bears. But in Idaho – where the habitats of black bears and federally protected grizzlies overlap – that isn’t good enough.
“Size is not a very good way to tell a black bear from a grizzly,” wildlife biologist Wayne Wakkinen told the Idaho Fish and Game Commission Thursday during a meeting in Coeur d’Alene. “We’ve got some pretty big black bears and some scrawny grizzlies.”
Color can be deceptive, too, since grizzlies can be nearly black and black bears come in a range of hues, including cinnamon. Even grizzlies’ shoulder humps aren’t always obvious, particularly in certain postures.
To aid with bear identification, Wakkinen developed an online training class that walks hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts through differences in tracks, claw length, ears and face profiles. The training will debut on Idaho Fish and Game’s website later this month. It includes online videos and a 15-question quiz.
Montana requires its bear hunters to take an online training class, but Idaho’s course is voluntary for now. Wakkinen hopes that people will take advantage of the opportunity to hone their skills.
“At times, it’s pretty darn difficult to tell a grizzly from a black bear,” he said. “It’s not unusual to be confused.”
In September, a pair of black bear hunters mistakenly shot a young grizzly on the Idaho-Montana border and tracked it into the brush, where it charged and attacked one of the hunters. One hunter was killed by a bullet fired by his hunting partner, who was trying to kill the bear and save his friend.
The grizzly had dark fur, Wakkinen said. If the hunting party had been able to identify the bear, they would have avoided it, he said.
In another case of mistaken identity, a grizzly was killed two years ago near Rose Lake, Idaho, by an elk rancher who mistook the bear crawling under his fence for a black bear. A year earlier, a bear hunter on Idaho’s Clearwater region mistakenly shot a grizzly in the upper reaches of Kelly Creek near the Montana border. It was the first confirmed grizzly sighting in that area since 1946.
Wakkinen urges people to take the time to look for multiple characteristics. On grizzly bears, ears are shorter and more rounded; on black bears, ears are longer, pointed and more erect.
Grizzlies have longer claws – in the two- to four-inch range – and their tracks are different. Their facial profile is often distinctive, with a dished in, or concave, look.
People who take the quiz can submit their names or remain anonymous. The online quiz was designed to provide instant feedback, showing people why they had the right answer, or pointing out the characteristics that would have allowed them to correctly identify the bear.
“It’s a training tool,” Wakkinen said. “That’s more important than flunking or passing people.”