Office of Law Enforcement
Pacific Region



August 2009

The “Bear” Truth is… Know Your Target

The end of the summer marks the beginning of many things people look forward to all year.  As the leaves slowly start to change and fall approaches, it signifies back to school shopping sales, the beginning of football season, the return of TV programs, and … bear hunting season!  The lure of hunting a bear goes back to the beginning of time.  In some Native American cultures, as well as in biblical times, when a person killed a bear, he was seen as a brave protector and provider and thus gained esteem in his community.  Therefore, it is not difficult to see the draw for many hunters.

There are two main species of bear in the Pacific Region: the American black bear and the Brown bear, also known as the grizzly bear.  In many states, you can get a license to hunt black bears (see below).  But the grizzly bear is listed as a "threatened species" under the Endangered Species Act, which means it cannot be hunted, killed or removed from its natural habitat without authorization – unless the kill was done in self-defense. 


Picture of a Grizzly Bear
Grizzly bear, USFWS

It is important to note that if you kill a grizzly bear thinking you were shooting a black bear, you will still be liable under the Endangered Species Act.  Therefore, being able to distinguish between a black bear and a grizzly bear is extremely important and entails much more than just the color of the bear coat.  To learn more about endangered and threatened species click here.

There are a few major differences between black bears and grizzly bears:

Grizzly Bear Characteristics

  • Distinctive hump and rump – The grizzly’s hump between the shoulders is always visible. The rump of a grizzly is lower than its shoulder when the bear is on all fours.
  • The “dished” face – A grizzly typically has a somewhat concave profile between its eyes to the end of its nose.
  • Square tracks – Grizzly tracks are more square: If you take a straight edge and hold it across the track of a grizzly front foot, just in front of the pad and behind the toe on either side, it will not cross the toe on the other side of the foot.
  • Brown, golden or blond coats – Grizzly bear coats vary in color from brown to golden to blondish.


Characteristics of a Grizzly Bear

Charactertistics of a Black Bear


Black Bear Characteristics

  • High rump – A black bears rump is higher than the rest of its body.
  • The “Roman” face – A black bear normally has a more “Roman” or convex profile.
  • Rounded tracks – A black bear front track is more rounded and a straight edge will cross the toe on the other side of the foot.
  • Black, brown or cinnamon coats – Black bear coats are not necessarily black.  Although their coats can be black, they can also be brown and cinnamon-colored. This is important to realize as black bears and grizzlies could have the same coat color.

For more information on black and grizzly bears, click here.

The differences between black bears and grizzly bears may seem easy enough to distinguish here, but there are a number of factors that will make it much more difficult in the wilderness.

  • Adrenaline – Seeing a bear will more than likely create a rush of adrenaline, fear or awe for someone unaccustomed to being close to bears.  Under these circumstances, even the most knowledgeable people may have a hard time seeing clearly and thinking logically about the circumstances they are in.
  • Lighting – Sunlight is blocked out by the trees in wooded areas.  This can interfere with a person’s ability to distinguish the species of a bear, especially if the bear is in shadows that disguise the color of its coat.
  • Dense brush – Bears are more likely to be in areas covered by dense brush.  This can interfere with distinguishing the color of the coat, the shape of the face, the hump of the shoulders and the ears.
  • Weather such as rain or snow – This can obscure a person’s vision, making identification difficult.
  • The angle of the terrain – This can change your point of view when looking at the bear and may make it difficult to tell whether the rump is higher or lower than the rest of the body.
  • Distance – If a bear is very close, all that may register is that a bear is very close before you decide to shoot it.  If a bear is very far away, it may be difficult to see the distinctive features of the bear such as the hump, rump and face.
  • Patience – It will take some training to wait until you make a positive identification of the species once you see a bear.  Wait until it comes out of the brush or into the light to be sure of your target.

The penalty for a violation of the Endangered Species Act could lead to criminal penalties of up to a $50,000 fine and imprisonment of not more than a year.

Each state has its own laws and seasons for black bear hunting. The Pacific Region and Pacific Southwest Region states are listed below with links concerning black bear hunting:

  • California 
  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • Idaho
  • Nevada – There is no hunting season for black bears in Nevada, however be aware that hunters may still come across bears in Nevada.
  • Hawaii and the Pacific Islands – No bears inhabit the islands.
  • Montana – Montana is not a part of the Pacific Region but since it is close and deals with the same issues, it has been included.

If the state you live in is not listed above and you would like more information, you can do so by contacting your local State Fish and Game Department.  For a list, click here.

So, when you’re on the hunt this fall, practice your species identification skills and know what you’re shooting at.

Picture of a Black Bear
American black bear, USFWS

To report a violation, please contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement at and click on “contact us” link at the top of the page.

For more information or to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, please go to and click on the “contact us” link at the top of the page.


Last updated: December 3, 2013

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