Field Judging Black Bears
Field judging black bears can be a tricky proposition.
Add in identifying and sorting boars from the sows, and it can at times put your mind into overdrive. If you’ve ever put yourself in a fast decision, quick draw scenario, then you know what it’s like to sit at a high stakes black bear gambling table. While this may be the toughest judging animal out there, with a bit of pre-game day know how and the help of a few tricks, those all too commonly experienced ground shrinkage issues should be no problem to steer clear of, or altogether overcome. Disclaimer, you have done your homework, are focussed on an area that consistently harbours geriatric bears, and have turned it into a highly desirable slow play type program.
Be it that sows and young bear are not targeted, preferably favouring large age class boars, this objective only bolsters and helps to drive population recruitment, current participating hunter success, and further and continued future success rates. In all Black Bear range, it’s sows that are the goose that “gives” golden eggs, if you will, and they are not only crucial to population dynamics, they are the best big boar bait that any program can have on stock in the arsenal.
Identification can pose difficulties, yet it’s a crucial job that we all partake as active Conservation Game Managers. Try as we all may, running perfect numbers in this is not realistic, but it is something that we stress our hunters take time to attempt and perform. Using our best ability to calmly judge, based on information at hand and through visual cues and indicators, we can readily make sound Harvest Management decisions. To start at the beginning and baseline. In our bear camp, it’s policy that sows and immature boars are never knowingly targeted, and per Alberta Wildlife Act, it’s unlawful to harvest sows that have cubs under 1 yr. Let’s get started.
Is it a Sow or Boar?
The first thing when looking at any bear is to determine whether it’s a sow or boar, fast deals or slow calculated programs, this requirement does not change. Determining a bear’s size can at times be even tougher than determining sex. At times this is exceedingly easy given the magnitude of many of our Alberta boars, however, it can be difficult to tell difference between a battle hardened old sow and a big boar. Age catches up to us all. It goes to say however, when a truly big, old age class bear is seen, one instantly knows what they are looking at.
There is nearly no mistaking these big boars, how they move and how they conduct themselves, especially when around other bears. They will without fail rule every roost they roll into. Other bears will openly display caution and fear when they make an appearance at the party. Big is big, and nearly anyone can identify one. Yes they look just like that discovery channel monster on TV. The issues present in Quality Bear Management Programs really reside in the range of medium to large bear. These specimens are much tougher to judge, with many being high quality bear that have reached maximum growth and old age. Even younger, smaller framed bear often look like they belong in this class without the strong utilization of visual sizing aids.
If it’s got cubs in tow, it should be a dead give-away.
In every case where you see a larger sized bear with one or more quite notably smaller and obviously dependant bears, the larger bear is guaranteed to be a sow. However many of our sows will have young of the year that they often times will not bring with them into a bait site. The sows will often tree the cubs before coming into a high activity area, preferring and making clear choice toward cub protection from other bears, primarily boars. These large old boars are very consistent, and given any opportunity will kill cubs, even at times fighting sows to kill and eat cubs, so as to bring a sow into estrus cycle. If you see this transpire, you will not be the first to have borne witness to these unbelievable events with our giant remote bears. A dead ringer with sows be the visible presence of nipples. On wet (nursing) sows with young, the cubs pull out hair around the nipples which can profile them, making them visible, even from broadside, and this can be especially evident on older, larger sows. We have ways of promoting “angle views” that can really help in obtaining this visual. More on that later….
Until Black Bear boars start approaching adult weights at 7-9 years,(5 years old here due to outstanding range & genetics), it can be very tough to tell them from sows. At the point of adult stage and maturity, a boar’s head will have grown to have the appearance of being quite wide, and based from thicker and bigger necks. Boars with some years under their belt will always appear to have smaller ears that are off more to the side of the head than up top. They can show a quite distinct center line crease that runs down their forehead from the pole between their ears. This muscle structure can be quite predominate and noticeable on some big boars. Bodies will be much the same, with the boars again appearing to have much heavier builds. They will exhibit what appear to be blocky, low to the ground profiles. Watch for bears that are exceptionally wide across the brisket with heavy, wide set front legs, dead give-away. Watch for what appears to be shorter more evenly tipped hair. Big boars do not normally look shaggy with longer ratty looking coats as do younger bear, though belly hair will hang low pronouncing the big belly look. Magnum old sows can exhibit these same profile traits, so nothing is static, however, all of these confirmation dynamics are affected by genetics and range factors, and Black Bear are as diverse as even our own species.
The black bear rut
Both boar and sow, while territorial will cover ground during the rut, depending upon range and population dynamics. They mark areas they travel, urine spotting along travel corridors and bear trails as they go. Boars utilize rub/marking trees. These can be communal. Boars will leave bite marks, oftentimes trees are bit off at standing head height, or pulled over their shoulder and broke off at standing height to display dominance and size/stature. They will stand up rubbing their backs leaving fur on these marking trees. Additionally, boars will straddle and walk over the top of small coniferous and deciduous saplings and shrubs etc. leaving scent. Many of these small trees will be readily identifiable, as they will be broken clean off down low sporting broken branches, and upon inspection, have visible urine staining. For a few weeks in May and early June there is heavy competition for sows, and boars will travel, scenario and sow density dependant. As we bait manage our bear, our hunters are not as focussed on watching for these behaviors. We show our hunters this sign as it is encountered, however it is not behavior activity that is normally displayed or encountered at a bait site. As such focus is applied more toward analyzing physical traits, confirmation and social behaviors when judging.
There are a few dead ringers in all this, and the information one has mentally compiled all becomes clear in an instant in a controlled close range scenario, such as a bait site, when a hunter finally gets a controlled look at the bear of a lifetime moving in. Big bears move like they are big. They can display indecisiveness, but all animals including people take pause when thinking and processing info, however, they will not be the bear that gets jumpy at every sound out there. If a bear comes in and has all other bears clear and undivided attention, promoting rapid submission or displays of fear, it will be a boar. The body language of a non-submissive large male in any specie is a rapid telltale of dominance, and such intolerant mannerism is as well the case with dominant big boars. If you see ripped up ears and/or heavy facial fight scarring on a big bear, do not waste any more time looking, it is show time. If you see a larger profile bear moving and trailing a smaller bear into the bait site, take the time to be sure, but it is virtually guaranteed to be a boar following a hot sow in.
There is much that can be said on these boar and sow differentiation and identification topics. It may even seem at this stage of reading this, as though an elk hunt would have maybe been the way to go, if for nothing more than identification ease between cows and huge racked bulls, but we have a few giant bear silver bullets that we employ here to make this task if not easier, just plain fun.
It is the giant super intellectual, predatory boars that keep every hunter daydreaming, and these old un-hunted crankers are our objective and goal. While these specific bear are choosy about a lot of things, much the same as any other big old age class animal, they are firstly very particular about where they live. Instantly we can pull a big bunch of “Black Bear range” from the equation regardless the program. First, our sites and locations are all set up in prime areas. If you want big you have to focus on, lock down and non-intrusively log time where they actually are. These giant boars will hold and defend prime areas, and if you are not in a game that has big bear, and focusses calculated strike effort specifically at them, you may well have stayed home.
We focus on close range programs and stand sites. These big bear like it tight, they like it thick and they like seclusion and control. If a big boar is comfortable he will likely stick around, even in light of the rut. If it’s prime ground, sows will think so as well. When that happens in our remote programs, you’ve got multiple big boys on your hands. “Heavy on bait” is a “subjective” term. Everyone has their way(s), and when done right, baiting can be an amazingly efficient program.
Our stands are all set in predominant downwind programs from the baits. This is important for obvious reasons. In the event of wind switch, we either don’t hunt it, or set up differently, non-intrusively and quietly. This is where great turf and a lot of it come in. The more quality ground to play with the better. In our area, every single site has big bear or multiple on it at some stage throughout the Spring hunts, but it’s important to pay attention to the details. These big, old age class bear can prove nearly impossible to get on once they have sufficient data, you have convinced them, or they have convinced themselves that something is wrong. Thought out and calculated in everything done is absolutely key. To consistently take big animals, they can’t be on the red button. You just don’t go down that road. Big bear are highly intelligent, and Guides have to be calculated to consistently manage big bear. No irrational fast calls when eyeing over the real time daily data and info. That’s the nice thing about our bait programs, you can afford to be calculated, right up until it’s time to slip in a Hunter. And for Hunters there has to be time to play with to get their end of it right, even in high density, giant bear country.
Compare them to the bait barrel
We employ a few tricks that can really help bring home the bacon. Our barrels are a great tool to use in size determination. In addition we cut logs at each bait site that are 5 feet in length. If a bear meets/exceeds the length of these on the ground, it will likely be a skull, hide measurement and age class management bear. To aide in sex identification, we run “jars” at each bait site. These strategically placed tree mounted “candy” jars provide a standing, unobstructed belly~view of bear for our clients that simply cannot be beat. For smart or educated bear, we have a few tricks up our sleeve to suck ‘em in.
We go into further detail with our hunters, but hope this overview can help a bit with this notorious black bear subject. Big black bear can be a challenge to successfully square off with, but so long as moves are calculated and everything can be promoted quiet, calm & cool, one nearly cannot go wrong. The hope is for giant net book 21 inch boars to be the first bear to walk in on everyone out there, but until that happens, keep lookin those bear over and have fun!
By Canadian Bear Outfitter & Guide ~ Wes Schuett