‘Mistaken Identity’ Grizzly Killings By Black Bear Hunters Likely To Continue, Experts Say

A male grizzly that was allegedly shot between Yellowstone Park and Cody because a hunter mistook it for a black bear was the third such grizzly to be killed there in the last decade. It’s a problem that’s likely to persist, local bear experts say.

Mark Heinz

May 16, 20235 min read

A hunter who recently mistook a grizzly bear for a black bear wasn't the first in Wyoming to make that mistake, and wildlife experts say he won't be the last.
A hunter who recently mistook a grizzly bear for a black bear wasn't the first in Wyoming to make that mistake, and wildlife experts say he won't be the last. (Getty Images)

A male grizzly bear killed May 1 near the North Fork Highway between Cody and Yellowstone because a hunter allegedly mistook it for a black bear wasn’t the first grizzly to die that way, and likely won’t be the last, some local experts said.

“Since all of these three recent killings took place on the North Fork with its easy highway access, a possibility would be to eliminate all bear hunting with a half-mile of the highway,” said Chuck Neal of Cody, a retired federal ecologist who has studied grizzlies for decades.

“As long as bear hunting is permitted along the highway corridor under present rules, these mistaken killings will continue to take place,” he told Cowboy State Daily.

Joe Kondelis of Cody, a veteran black bear hunter and president of the American Bear Foundation, said he’s also concerned about grizzlies being mistakenly shot.

“There are more and more people bear hunting, especially in Wyoming where tag sales have increased year over year,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “We also have an expanding grizzly population. This is something that is going to continue being a serious topic.”

Different Species, Different Rules

There are spring and fall hunting seasons for black bears in Wyoming, but grizzlies remain under federal protection and may not be hunted. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has planned for grizzly hunting, should the bruins be delisted and management of them handed over to the state.

And that could happen soon. Gov. Mark Gordon and Wyoming’s U.S. Congressional delegation are pushing to have grizzlies delisted.

However, unless and until that happens, hunting grizzlies remains illegal in Wyoming. And even if grizzlies are delisted and hunting is allowed, it’s likely to be far more restricted than black bear hunting.

One Violator Was A Biologist

Three grizzlies have been mistaken for black bears and killed within the last decade near Cody, including one that was shot by a Game and Fish biologist.

Biologist Luke Ellsbury mistakenly shot a grizzly while black bear hunting in 2013. A judge in 2014 ordered him to pay $10,000 in restitution, and Game and Fish suspended him for two weeks without pay, according to news reports at the time.

Joel Proffit of Cody also was recently ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution because he let his teenage son shoot a grizzly bear they’d mistaken for a black bear in 2022.

And Patrick M. Gogerty of Wapiti turned himself in the day after he allegedly shot a male grizzly that he claimed his mistook for a black bear while hunting May 1.

The maximum penalty for killing a grizzly is up a year in jail and $10,000 in fines, plus up to $25,000 in restitution to the state and six years’ suspension of hunting privileges.

Tough To Tell The Difference

Bear hunters can never be too careful, Kondelis said. There’s plenty of information available to help them make the distinction between black and grizzly bears.

“That being said, light conditions, rain, distance, etc. can all make it much more challenging. It is always safest to not shoot if you’re not 100 % certain,” Kondelis said.

One dead giveaway is the size of the bear’s claws, Neal said. Grizzlies have much longer claws than black bears.

“The two species can be difficult to distinguish under field conditions,” Neal said. “Size, color, even profile can be ambiguous. The one fail-safe difference is the front claws of the grizzly. No black bear has such long prominent front claws. But these claws can be hard to see under field conditions.”

Kondelis agreed.

“Claws on a grizzly are pretty unmistakable. That said, you often cannot get a good look at them,” he said.

Don’t Rely On Coloring, Shoulder Hump

Some people might think that grizzlies are lighter in color than black bears. And a shoulder hump also is regarded as a grizzly trademark. But relying on those factors won’t cut it, Kondelis said.

“Many grizzly bears can have darker colors resembling a dark chocolate or almost black color phase black bear. Conversely, many black bears can have color characteristics of a grizzly. Color is a horrible way to identify species,” he said.

“A lot of folks say, ‘Oh, the hump is easiest way to tell difference,’” Kondelis added. “While it's a good way, it shouldn't be used exclusively. The bear’s posture or stance could alter prominence of a hump.

“Also, some big black bears can develop a shoulder hump. Dish profile on face is another key identifier for griz, but unless you have looked at a lot of bears it can be tough to know what that looks like.”

Patience Wins The Day

Human impatience is a big factor in grizzlies getting mistakenly shot, Neal said.

“Right now, the problem is too many people with too many guns,= with too much time on their hands,” he said. “The solution, if any, is to require all bear hunters to actually see the front claws of any bear that they shoot — that would at least eliminate the mistaken identity problem.”

If there’s even a shred of doubt, don’t release the arrow or pull the trigger, Kondelis said.

“We always like to tell people to take all those factors into consideration rather than just one. If something doesn't match up it's probably best to just enjoy watching a bear,” he said.

As part of its Hunter Education Program, Game and Fish uses a quiz displaying several photos of grizzlies and black bears and asking students to identify which species is pictured.

The quiz is available online

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter