Some may be surprised to learn that black bears come in a wide variety of colors. Black bears are often loosely grouped into the four following color phases:
- Blonde, which is a yellow to very light-brown color. A blonde bear’s head or legs may be darker.
- Cinnamon, which is brownish with a distinct red tint characteristic of the spice after which it is named. In some areas these are called red bears.
- Brown or chocolate, which can range from fairly light brown to a deeper chocolate-brown color.
- Black, which of course is unmistakably black, often accompanied by a shiny sheen. Blacks commonly have a white blaze on their chest in some locales, while bears of other colors rarely do.
There are other colors that show up in tiny geographic areas such as the kermode bear and the glacier bear, but for the common man, these four color phases represent the opportunities available to us. Harvesting a bear of each color phase is referred to as a grand slam.
A growing number of people are showing an interest in shooting a bear of a color other than black. I am one of them. I am aware of a very small number of people who have harvested one of each of the four major color phases. I do not know for a fact that anyone has done it with a bow. Most likely someone has, and maybe someone will come forward with proof that they have done it as a result of reading this article. That would be exciting for me.
Why would anyone want to go to the trouble to shoot one bear of each color phase? Well, why do we have Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett record books? By our very 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 toward. Some people really want to get 500-pound bear, some want to get a Boone and Crockett 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 compared to the benchmarks bear hunters have.
So let’s take a look at the four major colors and divide them up geographically. If you are on a quest for a bear of one of these colors, this should help you narrow your search.
Blacks, of course, are found across the Eastern United States and Canada. Rather than explain where they are common, it’s easier to explain where they are uncommon. Across the Western United States they make up about 50 percent of the population, and in some states less than that. 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. States such as New Mexico, California, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona have fewer blacks than other colors.
Non-black bears make up least 40 to 50 percent of the bear population across the northern territories of Canada, and then become scarce in Alaska, where most of the bears are black. The Northwest Territories have fewer black-colored bears than the Yukon, showing a westward trend toward color that reverses itself as it gets closer to Alaska and the west coast of British Columbia. The pacific coastal areas and islands of Canada have bear populations consisting of nearly 100 percent black bears except for pockets of kermodes and glacier bears found in British Columbia and Alaska.
Brown bears are the second-most common color phase. Western Ontario and northwest Minnesota make up the eastern end of the range where brown bears are common enough to mention. As you go west across Saskatchewan, browns become more common, with chocolate bears showing up in good numbers in the Duck Mountain and Riding Mountain regions of western Manitoba.
Saskatchewan has good numbers of browns, especially chocolates, across its entirety. As you go west, browns are still common in Alberta and British Columbia, but their colors tend to be lighter.
Brown bears are common across the Rocky Mountain states of the United States, and particularly more common in the Northern Rockies and in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon. There are plenty of chocolates, but also browns that trend a little lighter in color. These areas also show decent numbers of bears that are lighter in color on their back and shoulders, but fade to a deep chocolate in the legs and sometimes the head.
Cinnamon bears can be hard to distinguish from browns. Their red tint is very easy to recognize in the sunlight but can look like a medium-brown on overcast days while looking at them from a distance. Cinnamons are found throughout the Western United States and Canada but are not as common as browns. Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming boast the most cinnamons in the USA, 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 of the colors. The occasional blonde will show up in Manitoba but the farther west you go, the more blondes you will have. They are never common. 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 greater dimensions, save for remote areas where there is little to no hunting pressure.
The highest number of blondes in a population are found in the desert Southwest, with New Mexico and Arizona leading the way. Colorado and California are good options, too. Following those would be Idaho and Montana. Alberta is the Canadian province with the most blondes, although the areas with numbers of blondes tend to be spottier than the best parts of the States. If you’re considering a trip to any Canadian province with a blonde bear high on your priority list, make sure you ask to see recent trail camera photos if the hunt is a baited hunt. One advantage of hunting Alberta is its 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 that 30 percent of their bears are color phase animals. That’s a number that’s thrown out in most of the four western provinces. But without a doubt, some areas produce more browns, blondes and cinnamons than others, so you must 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.
I have taken three of the four color phases and I am up for the challenge of taking the hardest of them all, the blonde. For 2015, I am planning to hunt in Canada in the spring and a Western state in the fall in my quest for a color phase grand slam. Perhaps you are up to the challenge as well!
Follow Bernie’s bowhunting adventures on his blog, bowhuntingroad.com.