During the live MeatEater podcast in Denver, we discussed the possibility of the presence of grizzly bears in Colorado. Grizzlies were believed to have been extirpated here by government trappers by 1952, but the last confirmed grizzly bear in Colorado was killed in self-defense by an archery hunter in 1979. In the intervening 40 years not a single grizzly bear sighting has been confirmed in the state of Colorado. But every year, credible witnesses claim to have seen or even photographed grizzlies here. Ultimately, our discussion led to a bunch of listeners sending in their own images of bears along with questions about whether or not the animal pictured is a grizzly.

Before we take a look at those images, let’s start by comparing a couple prototypical images and the distinguishing features of both grizzlies and black bears.

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The distinguishing features of these two species are usually quite noticeable. The major differences occur in the size and shape of the shoulders, the profile of the face, and the length of the claws. Grizzly bears have a pronounced shoulder hump, which black bears lack. Grizzlies also have a concave or “dished” facial profile, smaller ears, and much larger claws than black bears. Black bears have a flat “Roman-nose” profile, more prominent ears, no visible shoulder hump, and smaller, dark claws.

A couple of important things missing in these comparisons are size and color. That’s because neither is a clear indicator of what species of bear you might be looking at, and are general guidelines at best. However, both size and color are often cited as critical evidence in unconfirmed grizzly sightings. But across their ranges in the Lower 48, the average size of grizzlies and black bear species is pretty close. And both grizzlies and black bears can range in color from jet black, to brown, to cinnamon, to blonde, or even combinations of those colors. In dry western climates, color-phase black bears are common-up to 75 percent of Colorado’s black bears are not actually black.

And to make things even more complicated, sometimes those distinguishing features that scream “grizzly” can be found on black bears. When black bears stand a certain way, their shoulders stick up, creating the illusion of a grizzly hump. Also some large, mature black bears have a very big, round head and small ears that appear “grizzlyish.” Finally, it’s not often you can get a clear look at a bear’s claws but long, light-colored claws are one of the best indicators that you are definitely looking at a grizzly.

Take a look at these three images:

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All of these are pictures of black bears. The first shows a very large, brown black bear with a prominent shoulder hump, but note the short claws. The second shows a black bear with no shoulder hump at all but it does have what could be considered a dish-shaped head from that view and “grizzly” fur color. Grizzly is the common English adjective meaning “gray, grayish” or “grizzled.” The third black bear has a frosted coat, which is also something that’s more common in grizzlies. But once you study the head and ears, that’s just a really cool-looking black bear.

None of us can outright deny the existence of grizzlies in Colorado. There’s also a sighting form that can be submitted to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. If one turned dead up on the side of the road or got shot mistakenly by a black bear hunter, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising. After all, individual grizzlies have been known to travel hundreds of miles, seemingly on a whim. But when you consider the fact that forty years has passed without any hard proof of their presence, unconfirmed grizzly bear sightings in Colorado usually boil down to a simple case of mistaken identity. The fact is, if everyone who thinks they saw a grizzly here actually did see one, Colorado would be overrun with grizzlies. But we know this simply isn’t the case. This brings us to some images sent in by our listeners who had questions about what species of bear they were actually looking at.

Example No. 1:

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This is obviously a young black bear, despite the coloration. Take notice of the large ears, the long, pointy nose, and complete lack of a hump.

Example No. 2:

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While these images are grainy and taken from a long-distance, in the first photo it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that you’re looking at sow grizzly with a cub. First, the coloration is plausible. And there’s a bit of a hump on both bears as their heads are down feeding. But their neck is stretched out and down, making their shoulders jut upwards. Take a look at the second photo and things really change. It becomes clear that this is a sow black bear with a cub. The bear’s head shows the obvious slope of a roman nose, the ears stand out, and the hump has disappeared.

Example No 3:

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Again, you’ve got some grainy, long-distance shots, and identification gets even more difficult with these images. The first picture isn’t much help at all. But the bear’s coloration is enough to get you thinking grizzly. In the next photo, the cub looks like a fat, early-fall black bear cub, but the sow has what looks like a grizzly bear hump and some lighter, frosted coloration around her shoulder area. While this image is grainy and taken from a long-distance, in the first photo black bear’s shoulders stick up when their head is down. The bear’s head looks big and potentially grizzlyish, but the pixelation and shadows mask the details. Without a better look at these two, we’re leaning towards a big, fat black bear sow and cub. But admittedly, it’s a tough one.

Example No. 4:

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Lastly, we’ll delve into the unknown and unconfirmed. Here’s a picture of a bear that was supposedly taken in Colorado. Obviously, everything about this animal says young grizzly. Here’s the problem: The person who allegedly took the photo refused to share it with his friend. The friend, who shared the image with us, was allowed only to take a photo of the person’s phone. So you have to consider whether a photo of a photo is sufficient proof to support the presence of grizzlies in Colorado?

For some people, sure. For others, the burden of proof is much higher. Grizzlies are mysterious creatures, even to folks who deal with them on a routine basis. They are invoke fear, awe, and love. It’s no wonder that so many people want to believe that they are living near them, even if that belief might come at the expense of credibility.