More Grizzlies Mistaken For Black Bears Killed In Wyoming, Idaho and Montana

Grizzly bears have been killed by black bear hunters recently in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, again raising the question of proper bear identification.

Mark Heinz

June 15, 20235 min read

Grizzly and Black Bear 6 15 23
(Getty Images)

Hunters that killed grizzlies this spring in Wyoming and Idaho claimed they mistook the bruins for black bears.

And in Montana, another black bear hunter told authorities he had to kill a grizzly in self-defense.

Determining the difference between black bears and grizzlies can be tough, but is a vital skill, some veteran bear hunters told Cowboy State Daily.

It can be even more difficult to make the distinction if it’s been raining, as it frequently has been this spring across much of the Cowboy State, said Guy Eastman of Powell.

“Young bears and wet bears seem to fool people, even ‘experts,’” he said.

Eastman is editor-in-chief for Eastmans’ Publishing Inc. and has hunted both species of bears, including a grizzly bear hunt in Canada.

Grizzlies Mistakenly Shot In Wyoming

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.

Most recently, there was widespread outrage last month after a grizzly bear was found shot to death near the highway between Cody and the East Gate of Yellowstone Park.

Patrick M. Gogerty of Wapiti turned himself in the day after he allegedly shot a male grizzly that he said he 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.

Trouble In Idaho And Wyoming Too

Grizzlies were also killed recently in the other Greater Yellowstone states, Idaho and Montana.

A nonresident black bear hunter shot and killed a male grizzly bear June 8 in the Upper Priest Lake area of the Idaho Panhandle, according to the Idaho Fish and Game Department.

The hunter, whose name was not released, immediately called game agents and told them he had mistaken the grizzly for a black bear. He was “cooperating with the ongoing investigation,” according to Idaho Fish and Game.

On June 5, a man hunting black bears on a remote section of private property in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge area of Montana used a pistol to shoot and kill a grizzly, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. That incident also is under investigation, and the man’s name wasn’t released.

He told state and federal wildlife agents that the grizzly charged him, so he had to kill it in self-defense, according to reports. The 15-year-old female grizzly had no known history of conflict with humans and didn’t have any cubs with her when she was killed.

So far, the investigation indicates that the grizzly might have charged because of a “surprise, close encounter with the hunter,” according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Making Sure Can Be Tough

There are several characteristics that hunters are cautioned look for to distinguish black bears from grizzlies. Some include a distinctive shoulder hump on grizzlies, as well as their “dish shape” facial profile.

Grizzlies typically have much longer claws than black bears. Color isn’t a reliable determining factor, because both species come in a wide variety of shades.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department requires hunter education students to take a quiz on distinguishing between the two species. It features several ambiguous photos of bears and is available online

Despite all the information available, there’s no such thing as being too cautious before deciding whether to pull the trigger on a bear, Eastman said.

“There are lots of ways to distinguish black bears from grizzly bears. But only one is 100%. And that is the track,” he said.

Avid black bear hunter Joe Kondelis of Cody recent told Cowboy State Daily that as more people take up bear hunting, grizzlies getting shot by mistake is a growing concern.

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

Will Wyoming Get A Griz Hunting Season?

Grizzlies may be hunted in parts of Canada and Alaska, but remain under federal protection in Wyoming and the rest of the Lower 48. There have been ongoing efforts to have grizzlies delisted and possibly open hunting seasons for them in Wyoming.

It’s a controversial topic, with advocates and opponents expressing strong opinions.

Mark Heinz can be reached at

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter