How To Judge A Black Bear

Richard P SmithBucks n Bears, Friends of ELO

By:  Richard P Smith.

After more than 50 years of hunting, photographing and studying black bears, I’ve learned a number of reliable methods for judging the size and sex of the animals that rely on the differences in body length and height as well as the proportions and positions of the ears on the head and front foot size. Obvious sex organs are important, too, of course.

If you see a penis sheath hanging down in front of the hind legs on a side view or testicles from a rear view of a bruin, you are obviously looking at a male. From a bear management standpoint, males are the best to harvest because, like deer, black bears are polygamous. One adult male will breed with a number of females, so not as many males as females are necessary for a healthy population. Adult male black bears are also important predators on fawns, moose and elk calves and cubs. Large males are most likely to have skulls that qualify for record books, too.

Testicles are most visible on male black bears during spring seasons because their breeding season is from late spring into summer. By fall, testicles are often drawn up into the body cavity of males, so they won’t be as visible, but penis sheaths can be seen from side views during both spring and fall.

Binoculars can come in handy to confirm the sex of female black bears. When viewed from the rear, the vulva is a few inches below the tail and is usually marked by a pointed tuft of hair that is moist from urine.

The easiest way to determine if you see an adult female black bear is if she has cubs or yearlings with her. Females with cubs and their cubs are protected from hunters in most states and provinces. Females with young may arrive at a bait before their cubs or yearlings. For that reason, it’s important to wait a few minutes before shooting if a bear you suspect is a lone adult female arrives, to see if cubs join her.

Spring seasons are the only times that adult females could be accompanied by either newborn cubs, which are small, or yearlings that would weigh a minimum of 50 pounds. Yearlings have been with their mothers for more than a year and usually separate from her some time during June

Since adult male black bears average larger in size, both in length from nose to tail and height from the ground to the top of their backs when on all four feet, than adult females, those characteristics can be used to help determine whether you are looking at a male or female. When hunting over bait, a “ruler” of sorts can be placed on the ground at the bait to help determine the length of a bear’s body from nose to tail. A light-colored stick (white birch or aspen on which the bark has been removed) or log of known length (5 feet) makes a great ruler.

Five feet is a perfect length for a ruler at a bait because most adult females are a maximum of five feet from nose to tail. So bears that are less than 5 feet long are either females or young males. Bruins that are obviously more than 5 feet long are most often adult males.

Where legal, 50 gallon bait barrels, when upright, are ideal for judging the height of black bears, and thereby determining whether you are looking at a male or female. These barrels are about 36 inches in height. When on all four feet, the backs of adult males will be almost even with to higher than the top of the barrel. Adult females generally stand about half the height of an upright barrel.

Average size males will also be even with half the height of an upright 50-gallon barrel. If you would be happy taking an average size male, look for other features to try to determine if you are looking at a male such as sex organs. The size of front feet can also be helpful to look at. Even young males have front feet that look large. The front feet of females look small.

Where barrels are not legal for bear hunting, a height of 36 inches can be marked by a brightly colored ribbon or blaze on a tree. Or a white birch limb that is 5 feet long can be suspended 36 inches above a bait to help gauge the length and height of bears.

Small black bears have ears that look large in proportion to the size of the head and are close together on top of the head. As black bears grow, the distance between the ears increases and the ears eventually look smaller in proportion to the head. On adult males, for example, the heads have grown so large that ears appear as though they are on the sides of the head instead of on top, and they can look small in proportion to the head.

Adult males also have short, fat, snub-nose appearing snouts as opposed to narrow, skinny, dog-like snouts of small bears. Some adult males have a crease in the hair of the center of their heads from front to back, too.

Another method for judging the size and sex of black bears involves the use of an imaginary triangle on the head of a bruin, with the base of the triangle being between the ears and the sides extending to the nose. On a bear where all 3 sides of the imaginary triangle appear to be equal, you are looking at an adult male that should have about a 20-inch skull. On bruins where the sides of the triangle (distance from ears to nose) are obviously much longer than the distance between the ears, you are looking at an adult female or young male.

For more information about Field Judging Black Bears, there’s a chapter on the subject in my 384-page book (2nd edition of Black Bear Hunting) and I also produced a 46-minute DVD on the subject. Both can be ordered from my website (

Note from Gary Morgan of Wild Game Dynasty:  I highly recommend Richard’s video.  It is very informative and spot on for the rookie and veteran black bear hunter.

Richard P Smith
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