Black bears are one of our most sought after big game animals in North America because they offer so many different opportunities and styles of hunting. Bears rarely harm humans, but the fact these predators could really mess you up adds to the appeal and adrenaline rush of hunting them.
One of the most fascinating things about North American black bears is the phenomenon that they are not all black. Black bears come in a variety of colors loosely grouped into four major categories:
— Blondes are characterized by yellow to a light brown color and may have darker colored legs and head.
— Cinnamons are brownish-red, showing a distinct reddish tint, characteristic of the spice after which it is named. In some areas these are called red bears.
— Browns, normally called chocolate to distinguish them from Alaskan brown bears, can range from fairly light brown to a deeper, chocolate color. Dark chocolates are the most common color other than black.
— Bears with jet black fur are the most common and have the unmistakable pure black fur with often a shiny black sheen. Blacks commonly have a white blaze on their chest in some locales, while bears of other colors rarely do.
Other colors show up in tiny geographic areas such as the Kermode Bear and the glacier bear. But for the common man who would like to collect a color-phase bear, these four represent the opportunities available to us.
More and more hunters are showing an interest in shooting a bear of a color other than black; and I’m one of them. I am aware of a small number of people who have killed one of each of the four major color phases. I have taken three of the four and am up for the challenge of taking the hardest of them all, the blonde phase black bear. I arrowed the cinnamon bear on a spring 2014 hunt with Thunder Mountain Outfitters in Saskatchewan. I have been working on getting the blonde for three years. I would have bagged them all, but I’ve made a commitment to myself to shoot one of each with a bow.
Why would anyone want to go to the trouble to shoot one bear of each color phase? Well, why do we have Pope & Young and Boone & Crockett record books? By our nature, hunters are collectors; we like to add things to our collections and keep track of things like size, color and other characteristics. There are plenty of benchmarks to strive towards. Some people really want to get 500-pound bear, some want to get a B&C bear, some want one with a nice blaze on the chest and some want a bear of a different color. It’s a part of who we are as hunter-gatherers and collectors. And it’s an important part of why bear hunters love bear hunting. Deer hunters, for example, have little to go on by comparison. We measure antlers by the inch and in some areas deer are weighed and recorded. That’s pretty boring when compared to the benchmarks bear hunters have.
Interestingly, the majority of black bears of a color other than black are found west of the Mississippi River. There are tiny populations of brown bears in eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, for example, but nothing like the numbers of color bears of the west. It’s estimated that about 5 percent of the bears in Minnesota are brown, with the majority found in the northwestern corner of the state. Western Ontario contains a small number of brown colored bears as well.
Farther south, Arkansas and Oklahoma produce a little higher percentage of brown bears, and even the occasional cinnamon. This is in keeping with the general trends that the farther west and south you go in North America, the greater the instance of color bears and the lighter the colors. Maybe someday a DNA study will be done and shed some light on this mystery. In the meantime, most of us are happy to have the variety and challenge these Western color bears offer.
Let’s take a look at the four major colors and divide them geographically. If you are on a quest for a bear of one of these colors, this should help narrow your search.
Where to Hunt
Black bears, of course, are found across the eastern U.S. and Canada. Rather than explain where they are common, it’s easier to explain where they are uncommon. Across the western U.S. they run about 50 percent and in some states less. Black bears are less common in Canada, in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and British Columbia where increasing numbers of browns, cinnamons and the occasional blonde may be found. New Mexico, California, Colorado, Utah and Arizona have fewer blacks than other colors. In Washington and Oregon, they run about 50 percent with other colors.
Black bears run at least 40-50 percent across the northern territories of Canada, and then become scarce in Alaska where once again most of the bears are black. The Northwest Territories have fewer black bears than the Yukon, showing a trend towards color that reverses itself as it gets closer to Alaska and the west coast of British Columbia. The coastal areas and islands of Canada have bear populations consisting of nearly 100 percent black bears except for the pockets of Kermodes and Glacier bears found in BC and Alaska.
Brown bears are the second most common color phase. I mentioned western Ontario and Northwest Minnesota, which is the eastern end of the range where brown bears are common enough to mention. As you go west across Manitoba, browns become more common, with chocolate, cinnamon and blonde bears showing up in good numbers in the Duck Mountain and Riding Mountain regions of western Manitoba.
Saskatchewan has good numbers of browns, especially the chocolates across the province. As you go west, browns are still common in Alberta and British Columbia. The colors tend to be lighter, with some of the dark chocolates, but also more cases of browns a little lighter in color than what we would consider chocolate.
Brown bears are common across the Rocky Mountain states of the U.S., particularly in the northern rockies such as Montana, and in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon. There are plenty of chocolates, but also browns that trend a little lighter. These areas also show decent numbers of bears that are lighter on their back and shoulders, but fade to a deep chocolate in the legs and sometimes the head.
Cinnamon, or “red” bears as they are called in some locales, may be hard to distinguish from browns except for the red tint. This color is very easy to recognize in sunlight but can look like a medium brown on overcast days from a distance. Cinnamons are found throughout the western U.S. and Canada but are not as common as browns. Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming boast the most cinnamons in the U.S., and they range in good numbers from the far western part of Manitoba to the Rockies in British Columbia.
Cinnamons are more common in the southern Rocky Mountains. Areas with savannahs and open mountain slopes tend to have more cinnamons than the higher alpine regions.
Blondes are the least common. The occasional blonde will show up in Manitoba but you’ll find more farther west. In no area are they abundant. Because they are such a novelty, larger specimens tend to be rare no matter where you go. A blonde bear of any size is desirable to many hunters so a smaller percentage of them reach large size, except in remote areas where there is little to no hunting pressure.
The highest number of blondes are found in the desert southwest with New Mexico and Arizona leading the way. Colorado and California are good options, too, followed by Idaho and Montana. Alberta is the Canadian province with the most blondes, although the areas tend to be spottier than the best parts of the States. If you’re considering a trip to any Canadian province and have a blonde bear high on your priority list, make sure you ask to see recent trail camera photos if it’s a baited hunt. One advantage of hunting Alberta is the two-bear limit. This allows you to shoot a nice representative bear if the opportunity presents itself, then hold out for the color of your choice.
I have found that many Canadian outfitters like to say they have 30 percent color bears. That number is thrown out in most of the four western provinces. But without a doubt, some areas produce more browns, blondes and cinnamons than others. Do your homework and due diligence so you are not duped into going to a place that is less than the best for what you want in a color phase bear.
The Confusing Genetics of Bear Coloration
Why do black bears occur in a variety of colors? I have asked several biologists and all offer the same basic answer: We don’t really know. Some theories have been put forth, some of which seem plausible.
The predominant theory has to do with the geographic range of the bears. In the western states, bears tend to spend more time in the open, feeding in clearings and on open hillsides. Having a black coat in the open sunshine may not only be uncomfortably warm, but also make the bear more visible. Black coats on bears that live in thick forested areas can be an advantage. This adaption to the environment would stand to reason, and the geographic location of most color phase bears would seem to support the theory. But there are many areas where blacks and other colors are mixed in thick forested areas.
If these colors were actually an adaptation to their environment, it would stand to reason the colors inferior for the particular environment would have been eliminated long ago. But you can go to many places and find the light yellow blondes and jet black bears living and feeding side by side.
Bears of differing colors can occur in the same litter. I once saw a black bear sow with two blonde cubs. I’ve also seen a brown bear with a black cub and a cinnamon cub. I have a black sow bear on my property this year with four cubs, three of which are brown and one is black. Sows commonly breed with more than one boar. Could these cubs be from the same father or could she have bred with males of two different colors? Like the answer given by the biologists, we really do not know for sure.
The Color Phase Grand Slam
There’s a grand slam of turkeys and a grand slam of sheep; why not a grand slam for predator hunters?
With four species of bears in North America — black bears, polar bears, brown bears and grizzly bears — that’s one grand slam available to bear hunters. But finding a place in the budget for these hunts is out of the question for most of us.
A grand slam of all four major color phases of black bears is more attainable for the average hunter. Shooting a blonde, black, cinnamon and a chocolate is a goal only a handful of hunters have reached, and it’s within reach for the working man’s budget.
It’s time we bear hunters have an organization that keeps track of grand slams for bear hunters. I am compiling a list of people interested in being involved. If you have taken all four species or all four colors, or have an interest in doing so, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- State/Province Percent* Available Colors
- Arkansas 20 Brown, Cinnamon
- Arizona 60-70+ Brown, Cinnamon, Blonde
- California 70-80+ Brown, Blonde, Cinnamon
- Colorado 60-70+ Brown, Blonde, Cinnamon
- Idaho 30-40 Brown, Blonde
- Michigan 5- Brown
- Minnesota 5+ Brown
- Montana 30-40 Brown, Blonde, Cinnamon
- New Mexico 60-70+ Brown, Blonde, Black Mixed
- Oregon 40-50+ Brown, Cinnamon, Blonde
- Utah 60-70+ Brown, Blonde, Cinnamon
- Washington 40-50+ Brown, Cinnamon, Blonde
- Wisconsin 5- Brown
- Wyoming 40+ Brown, Blonde, Black Mixed
- Alberta 25-30+ Brown, Cinnamon, Blonde
- British Columbia 20-25 Brown, Blonde, Cinnamon
- Manitoba 25-30+ Brown, Cinnamon, Blonde
- Northwest Territories 25-30- Brown, Blonde, Black Mixed
- Ontario 5- Brown, Cinnamon, Blonde (Mostly Western)
- Saskatchewan 25-30+ Brown, Blonde, Black Mixed
- Yukon 25-30+ Brown, Blonde, Black Mixed
- *Percentages are estimates and vary depending upon specific area. All other states and provinces not listed have less than 1 percent.