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Alaska Department of Fish and Game


Online Bear Baiting Clinic
Choosing Which Bear to Take

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists monitor the number and sex of bears taken from each Game Management Unit (GMU), and seasons and bag limits are sometimes adjusted to manage population size. Most hunters prefer to take male bears. Why select male bears?

  1. Male bears are larger than females and provide more meat.
  2. Male bears provide a larger pelt for trophy value.
  3. Bear trophies are "scored" by skull size, and male bears have larger skulls.
  4. Adult male bears kill cubs and other smaller bears.
  5. Harvesting male bears has the least impact on populations because one male can mate with several females.
  6. Female black bear reproductive potential (numbers of young per lifetime) is relatively low compared to many mammals, including most ungulates, other carnivores, and small game animals.
  7. Harvesting too many females reduces population growth. This in turn can result in fewer bear hunting opportunities, especially in GMUs with biological concerns pertaining to the black bear population.

As a bear baiter, you have the opportunity to look a bear over closely, possibly through multiple viewings, before deciding to shoot. You want to assess which species it is (black or brown/grizzly), its size, its gender and, if applicable, the condition of its pelt.

Size Determination

Black bears are the smallest of North American bears. Adult bears stand about 30 inches at the shoulders and measure about 60 inches from nose to tail. On average, in spring, an adult male weighs about 180-200 lbs, an adult female 120-140 lbs, and a yearling 25-50 lbs.

All bears are typically at their lowest annual weight when they emerge from winter dormancy. They may be 20% to 30% heavier in the Fall when they are gaining fat for the long winter months of hibernation. Most hunters are looking for a larger bear, so what can the smart hunter do to improve the odds of shooting the "right" bear?

  1. The "stick" method: When setting up your baiting site, place a pre-measured stick in the ground next to the bait or place marks on the nearest tree. When standing on all fours, bears taller than 34” at the top of the shoulder are larger animals.
  2. The "bait barrel" method: Compare the bear’s shoulder height to your bait barrel for reference:
    • A bear measuring 1 foot taller than a 55-gallon drum barrel laid on its side = a 250-300 lb bear.
    • A bear measuring 15-18” taller than, or twice as tall as, the horizontal barrel = huge bear.

Another way to estimate the size of bears visiting your bait site is to find soft areas in the soil where bear prints can easily be observed. Take a close look at the width of the front paw; if 3-3 ½” you’re likely looking at a small bear, 4-5” a medium bear and 6-6 ½” would be a very large black bear. Be sure it’s not a brown bear track you’re looking at. Black bears have sharply curved claws that are rarely over 1 1/2” in length. Note the difference in claw shape and dimensions in the following photos.

Bear claws

Sex Determination:

Another skill learned by experienced bear hunters is the ability to determine the sex of the bear they are observing. Not all methods are foolproof, but time in the field and experience can improve your abilities. With patience or luck you may observe the bear urinating. A female bear may be in a squatting position and will urinate towards the rear while a male bear will urinate forward. Young male bears may also squat to urinate. Large males may urinate while stretching or walking. The penis sheath and testicles on male bears may be observed, especially if you have good optics. In spring, the female bears may be lactating so visible mammaries would be a useful indicator. Early summer is mating season for bears. With the females, the vulva may be visible when she is "in heat." By hanging a scent bag near your baiting site, you may entice the bear into a standing posture, where you may have a better chance to determine whether it’s a male or female.

Behavioral Characteristics:

An observant bear hunter can also use bear behavior to determine what type and size of bear they are looking at.

  1. Young bears: These are often the first bears to come to a bait site. They usually appear nervous, cautious, and alert. Young bears sniff the air, constantly checking for threatening scents including of large male bears. The movements of young bears can be hurried and they may grab some bait and leave the site.
  2. Large males: Since big males are typically more nocturnal than other bears, the late evening or very early morning stand may increase your odds. Large males often display dominance to other bears through aggression or vocalization. During May and June, mature males search for females in heat. Big dominant males tend to be less nervous or concerned about other bears.
  3. Females: A large female with cubs may come into a bait station alone and multiple times, especially when the cubs are young. For safety, the mother bear may "stash" the cubs in a nearby tree before she moves in to check out the bait site. If you are planning to harvest a male, it is imperative that you wait a significant amount of time – and observe carefully to ascertain the bear’s gender and reproductive status -- before taking steps to harvest it. If you suspect the bear is a female, check the mammae to see if she is lactating.

General Judging Guidelines

Here are some tips for differentiating between larger and smaller bears at a distance.

Small Bears:

  • Big ears when compared to the size of head
  • Lanky appearance with long looking legs
  • Head appears large in relationship to the body
  • Head will have an elongated, triangular appearance--narrow or pointy look
  • Neck will have a long, thin appearance
  • Hair will be longer and fluffy (applies to females as well)

Large Bears:

  • Blocky head
  • Thick muzzle
  • Ears appear smaller compared to size of head
  • Ears will be set wide apart on the head
  • Neck appears thicker and shorter in relationship to the body
  • Legs, rump, and mid-section appear more bulky
Male and female bears
Note the blocky head and thick muzzle on the photo of the male bear.
3 bears of different ages

Some Final Points

Spend time watching bears to avoid shooting a female who has cubs. The size and shape of bears provides clues to their age, sex, and species. The behavior of a bear at the bait site may indicate the presence of other bears or cubs. Be patient and observant before deciding on harvesting the bear. Judging bears is an art but can be learned through time with long hours of experience, patience and dedication.

Other Key Resources

  1. Bear Identification: Test your knowledge of bear species with Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear identification course.
  2. ADF&G's Bear Identification Video: "Take a Closer Look"
    • Order a DVD by calling (907) 267-2257
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