By Clay Newcomb
The hide of a bear is arguably the most desirable aspect of their trophy status. Iconic of American wilderness, the bear hide is truly a national symbol of our hunting heritage and makes a fine memory stimulator for years to come.
George Laylock in the book, The Wild Bears says, “A bear’s fur is the most effective insulating coats worn by any wild animal.” A bear hide is made up of two distinct types of hair, both functional in operation. The underfur is the thinner, softer, denser and shorter hair that can be seen when the hair is parted. Its primary job is to be an insulator during a bear’s long winter slumber. The second type of hair is the guard hair. These are long, coarse hairs and are the primary visible hairs that give quality to the hide. Guard hairs act as insulators, but are primarily the “outer shell” of the bear hide. They are designed to protect the underfur from becoming soiled. The guard hairs help repel water. When wet and then shaken, much like a dog, the hide becomes almost totally dry.
The hide of a bear serves multiple purposes. The primary function is insulation from both cold and heat. Additionally, it serves as means of identification as all bears look a little bit different (especially to bears). It can also serve as a means of communication when the guard hairs are raised, i.e. “its hackles were raised”. The hide provides protection from flying insects, sharp briars or other environmental threats to soft skin. Hide color also acts camouflage to conceal the bear from prey or other predators.
Bears molt every year during the spring and summer. During the late fall, just prior to denning, bear hides are close to their peak density. When a bear emerges from the winter den, however, the hides are at their peak. It appears that bear hides continue to add some thickness and length inside the winter den, thus making spring hides a hunter’s top choice. I have personally never seen a bear with six-inch fur, but some claim it’s possible. A bear that I took in Northern Alberta last May had legitimate four-inch hair. This would be considered a quality spring hide. In many parts of the bear range, bruins taken in the early fall may only have two-to-three inches fur. The guard hairs aren’t as long and the underfur isn’t nearly as thick as in the early fall.
The main thing concerning hunters about in regards to hide quality is rubbing. A bear may have a perfect hide, but be rubbed bad on one side or another. Often it is on the rump. During the late spring, most bears will begin to rub as the temperature rises and the winter coat becomes more of an irritant. If you are going to make a rug, a rub is a problem. If you plan to mount a bear, a rub on the rump can sometimes be worked around. I’ve never been too picky on hide quality. If it’s a good bear and I’m ready to end my hunt, hide quality is lower on my list of desirable traits. I would personally rather take a big bear with a lower quality hide, than a smaller, younger bear with a more desirable hide. This is just personal preference.
Variations in Bear Hides: Color Phase
Probably the most unique thing about black bears is their variation in color. It’s not clear why bears have adapted in this way, but it’s most likely due to habitat variations. The more open the terrain, there is a higher probability of color phases other than black. The further west you go the higher percentage of color phase. In the far eastern parts of bear range, deep in the Eastern Deciduous forest, bears are almost 100% black. Both of these variations make sense. Bears that live in the deep, dark woods are likely going to be darker. Bears that live in open terrain are going to lighter. Both could find biological advantages to these color variations.
The primary color phases of the black bear are cinnamon, blonde and chocolate. The most rare color phases are Kermode (white) and glacier (bluish grey). Any one of the color phases of the black bear make for a stunning trophy. True Kermode bears are only found in one region of British Columbia and are protected. However, numerous “white” black bears have been killed in different regions of the bear’s range. In the last two years, Bear Hunting Magazine has run two stories on white bears. The first came from Thunder Mountain Outfitters in Saskatchewan. The second came from Swanspoint Outfitters in Alberta. Both bears were yellowish-white.
Top destinations for big color phase bears have historically been in western Canada. Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba would be considered by most as the big three for color phase bruins. However, in the United States (U.S.), there are regions with high percentages of color phase bears, particularly Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Colorado boasts that 80% of its black bears aren’t black. However, bears in the western U.S. typically don’t have body size of the Canadian bears.
Another striking feature of black bear’s hide can be a white patch or “v” on the chest. Statics say that 80% of cubs are born with white markings, but many will lose them in adulthood. Biologically, the markings help bears identify other bears. If you kill a one with a nice white patch and want to display it well, a rug is most often a poor choice. You’ll have to split the hide right through the patch and the separation will make it much less striking. It’s often best to get a wall pedestal mount or standing full body mount to make the patch readily visible.
The square of a hide is a significant trophy status indicator. In the southern U.S., bears are primarily assessed by the live or dressed weight. In the North, particularly Canada, bears are compared by the “square” of their hide.
Hides should be squared while green (untanned). The measurement is designed to be taken in the field. The hide should be laid out flat on the ground with paws extended naturally without stretching. A measurement should be taken from the nose to the base of the tail. A second measurement is taken from the “wingspan” of the front paws. Take these two measurements, add them together then divide by two. You’re finding the average between the length and width of the bear.
There is a lot of room for discrepancy when squaring hides. Many hunters and guides take liberty in their measurements. The magic number for black bears seems to be “seven-foot square”. Last year in Alberta, we killed six bears, all with skull measurements over 18-inches green. Four of the six measured over 19 inches. The largest bear hide squared just over six-foot six-inches. It takes a really big bear to square over seven feet. I’m not convinced that as many are killed as claimed.
One of the few variations in black bears, aside from their color phase, is their muzzle color. Some bears are distinctly tan colored with the light color extending almost to their eyes. Some bear muzzles are completely black. Muzzle color is often the biggest way to tell the difference between individuals in trail camera pictures. Neither a light muzzle nor a dark muzzle is necessarily desirable, but a hunter may have a personal preference. I’ve seen some beautiful bears with very light muzzles. I’ve also seen some stunning bears that were 100% black.
When assessing a bear hide in the field you’ll want to get a good look at all sides of the bear to examine for rubbed spots. Secondly, you’ll want to access the overall look and sheen of the hide. Some bears are sleek and shiny while others are duller in color. From these two observations you’ll be able to determine whether this is a bear you’ll want to harvest or not. If you are after a certain color phase, you’ll have to be more particular. Most good color phase regions in western Canada have between 20 and 30 percent color phase bears. The end goal is that you take home a bear that you are happy with. Take some time to look over your bear before you shoot this spring.
In conclusion, hide quality is understood by asking these four questions:
1. Is the hide free of rubs?
2. Is the hair long and have a good sheen?
3. Is it a color phase bear?
4. Will the hide’s square meet your personal expectations for the hunt?
5. Does the bear have any chest markings?
6. What is the muzzle color of the bear?
And if your guide says it’s a seven-foot bear, I wouldn’t measure it twice!