How to Field Judge Black Bears

Spring bear hunting is a great way to get back into the hills after a long winter. Before you head out, make sure you know exactly what you’re looking at before you send a shot downrange.

Spring black bear hunting in the West is relatively inexpensive, and the tags are almost always over-the-counter. More than half of U.S. states allow black bear hunting, with nine offering spring hunting in addition to fall.

Spring bears generally aren’t too tough to find. As the snow recedes, they follow the food source, which includes grass, shoots, and elk calves. The hard part is finding a truly mature bear. For this, you need a spotting scope, a comfy butt pad, bombproof rain gear, and enough intel to ensure that you don’t kill a grizzly, a sow with cubs, or a bear that’s only slightly larger than your pet dog.

Hunter glassing for black bearQuality optics are critical for identifying wildlife from a distance.

Why Shoot a Mature Boar? 

If you’re new to bear hunting, it’s tempting to chase after the first bear you see. Think back to your first whitetail. Was that the biggest buck you ever killed? When you spot a bear, take time to watch it to determine its sex and age to the best of your ability. Killing a mature bear is good conservation even if you’re not a trophy hunter.

Hunter examining bear pawThe paw of a mature black bear boar.

“The idea behind harvesting any mature, male specimen is that those animals have had the chance to procreate,” says Kyle Lehr, assistant director of big game records at the Boone and Crockett Club. “Big boars will kill cubs to get the sows into estrus. By killing a mature boar, there’s less chance of harming the species' overall population.”  

How to Field Judge Black Bears 

Unlike ungulates that carry headgear, black bears are tough to judge by physical features alone. “It’s almost impossible,” says Lehr. Instead, hunters should rely on a number of physical characteristics as well as the bear’s physical presence. Here’s what we mean:

Physical Presence 

As soon as you spot a bear, settle in behind the glass and start a mental checklist. Do you see any other bears? If you see cubs, pack up and move to another drainage. Even if you don’t see cubs, you still could be looking at a sow. Getting a view of the backside for associated male paraphernalia can be a solid indicator of sex—if you’re close enough.

Black bear in mountainsA brown phase black bear viewed from across a canyon.

Once you’ve determined you’re watching a lone boar, stay behind the glass. The biggest bears are going to occupy the best habitat. They’re following the snowline in the spring, munching on the lushest vegetation. When a smaller bear tries to get a piece of that drainage, the bigger bear will run it off or kill it. It’s that simple. 

Now the fun part—watch that bear move. Does it swagger and move with purpose? Big, bad boars act like they own the mountain. They’re not nervous like a smaller bear. They step over sticks and logs. Younger bears tend to step on them. Every move a mature bear makes is deliberate. Once you think you’ve found the king of the mountain, start checking the bear’s physical features. 

Physical Features 

Start with the bear’s head. A mature bear’s ears generally look small in relation to its head. If the ears stick to the side, that’s good (Figure B). Now check the muzzle. You want a broad, not pointy, muzzle. A leaner, longer snout will typically indicate a young bear or sow (Figure A). Finally, use the triangle test. Draw a line across the bear’s skull between the ears. Draw the other two sides of the triangle from the ears to its nose. If all the sides of the triangle appear to be the same size, this could be a mature bear (Figure B). A word of caution here. “You could have a melon head that’s all skin and fat and still not know how mature that bear really is,” Lehr says.

bear face

Hunter with black bearStone Glacier Marketing Director Lyle Hebel with a mature black bear boar killed in 2021.

Once you think you’ve got a good-sized melon on the hillside, inspect the body. Older bears, including sows, can have pot bellies and sway backs. Take a long look at the bear’s front shoulders. A mature boar will have broad front shoulders that look long and burly. The lower forearm, wrist, and foot on a boar will be the same width. Think cankles. On a sow and younger bears, their wrist will pinch directly above the foot. 

Any article about hunting bears would be remiss to leave out the differences between black bears and grizzlies—the latter are considered a threatened species in the Lower 48. Color alone is not a good indicator of species, as black bears can be brown, cinnamon, and blond. Grizzlies will have the tell-tale shoulder hump, short round ears, and a dished-face profile. If you are in grizzly country and have any doubt about species, err on the safe side and enjoy the show.