By BHM Staff | Originally Released July/August 20015
The live weight of a bear is quite literally the best indicator of “how big” a bear actually is. Regardless of where you hunt and what a “big bear” is for your region, all hunters are after a big one and rightfully so. Older mature males should be the target of our hunting. They’ve already contributed to the gene pool, and by going after them, we take the pressure off juveniles and females, overall helping bear populations thrive. Going after the big one isn’t something to be ashamed of, but rather it’s the genius of conservation through hunting.
The trophy status of any animal is much more than just bragging rights, but according to the Boone and Crockett Club’s mantra, it’s an indicator of good habitat and wildlife management. Anywhere that older-age class males exist in decent number, the age skew and population dynamics are in check. North American wildlife populations are thriving it’s because of the beautiful thing we call the “North American model for wildlife management.” It’s a powerful concept that has made our hunting culture what it is and it’s the powerful logic that will keep our hunting culture alive. Big, fat, heavy adult bears being killed by hunters means that we are doing something right. This is a point of celebration. Bear weight is a prime indicator of the trophy status of an animal.
Regional Differences of Bear Weight
Bear weights differ from region to region based upon the habitat, climate and available food source. For instance, some of the largest black bears on the planet live in North Carolina. These bears live in a mild climate, they don’t den for long periods of time and they have significant carbohydrate-rich fall food sources. The coastal bears have access to agricultural fields, berries and some fall mast. In contrast, bears in the far North in Canada den for longer periods of time and don’t have fall hard mast. A big bear in North Carolina is 500-pounds plus. Last year, Thomas Capps killed a 782-pound bear in Hyde County, North Carolina.
Anywhere black bear exist there is a chance for them to grow big. A five-hundred-pound bear is the exception in any region of North America, however, every year bears are killed that weigh over 700 pounds. Large bears are more common in regions where they have access to agricultural crops. North Carolina, Wisconsin, Minnesota (to name a few) and the southern half of many of the Canadian provinces afford bear populations with access to wheat, oats and corn.
In Arkansas, black bears have access to vast areas that produce heavy fall mast crops. The bears den upwards of 120 days and find readily available food the remainder of the year. Every year hunters kill bears that are four hundred pounds and heavier. In 2014, one hunter killed a bear that had a dressed weight of 575 pounds, easily pushing the bear over the 600-pound live-weight mark. The large weight can be attributed to the abundant fall mast.
In most regions of the bear’s range a mature sow will weigh between 130 to 200 pounds and males between 200 and 400 pounds. In Bear Hunting Magazine last year we published an article titled “Fighting the Acorns” in which an Arkansas hunter killed a 340-pound dry sow. The bear was six years old. Research in Arkansas from the 1990s also spoke of 23-year-old male that weighed around 225 pounds. The bear was clearly on the downhill slope. Bears are biologically designed to capitalize on good food sources. Bear weights can truly be all over the board, but like anything, there are trends that are consistent.
Spring Weight Versus Fall Weight
When hunters from the United States go to Canada they often have an assumption that they are going to be hunting 500-pound bears. Though there are plenty of big bears in Canada, bears that big are still rare. Typically, the further north you go the smaller the body size of bears. In the far North, a bear may have a 20-inch skull but only weigh 300 pounds in the spring. That same bear in the fall could weigh much more.
The North America Bear center reports on their website researchers near Orr, Minnesota documented the weight of a wild male bear at 584 pounds on July 31, 1991. Thirty-six days later on September 5th bear weighed 876 pounds. The bear had put on over eight pounds per day. On July 4th, 1995 the weighed only 465 pounds after denning and spring mating season. This would be exceptional weight gain and loss. However, a bear gaining two pounds per day during their fall hyperphagy wouldn’t be unusual. Bears typically lose between 15 and 40 percent of their body weight during winter denning. Nursing sows lose more weight than boars.
The “Light” side of judging a bear’s weights
Bear weight is a hot topic, which is surrounded by much debate. The debate often revolves around the discrepancies between actually weighing a bear on a scale or simply estimating the weight of a bear. The truth is, most bears aren’t weighed after they’re killed. It’s almost always inconvenient and sometimes even impossible. Most weights are estimated based upon a hunters experience with other bears that they’ve seen weighed or mentally calculated based upon the family hog they knew weighed over 300 pounds. At other times, a bear’s weight is simply what a hunter or outfitter wants it to be. Let’s be honest, once the bear is gutted, caped and butchered, who’s to argue? Here lies the difficulty of judging bears based upon weight – many are simply inaccurate if they aren’t weighed on scales. An experienced bear hunter who has weighed multiple bears over the years can often give an estimate within 50 pounds of the actual weight, but it’s still just guessing.
That being said, there is really no harm in estimating weight. We all do it and I actually enjoy guessing the weight of a bear. But for the sake of accuracy, I think it is helpful and correct in the bear hunting community to note that a bear was “estimated” to weigh such-and-such or weighed on scales. Most people tend towards over exaggeration, while others, for the sake of modesty, constantly under guess bears – both are inaccurate.
Another consideration that plays into the bear-weight equation is the social pressure. I have to be honest about something I’m guilty of. If my buddy kills a bear, I’m often hesitant to tell him what I think it weighs if it’s less than what I know he thinks it weighs! Sometimes ignorance is bliss and you just let him believe that his 150-pound bear weighed 200 pounds. Out of a streak of jealousy, others might bend the equation the other way, knocking pounds off of their buddy’s bruin. You don’t want to be that guy, as you may not get invited back to camp.
If you’ve been in bear camp many times I’m sure you’ve run into this scenario. The one where your hunting partner is insistent that you agree with him on his bear’s weight and insists upon your approval. You know he’ll be offended if you guess less than him. Several times I’ve simply ignored the question of “how much do you think that bear weighs?” Some things are better left unsaid, especially if it weighs under 200 pounds. This is the point when you drop a nice comment about how thick the hide is or make note of the bear’s “small ears” (a compliment in the bear world). I know I’ve had people do this when I’ve killed a nice bear. They are clearly avoiding the question.
Ok, here is another mistake that you should keep from making if you ever kill a really big bear. Don’t ever make the mistake of telling people back in camp that you’ve killed a 500-pounder. Most people don’t actually know what a 500-pounder looks like and they’ll be expecting something much bigger. When they see your bear they’ll go silent as they internally war with how to tell you that they don’t think he’ll weigh a pound over 350. The conversation for years will be awkward when you bring up the “giant” bear you killed. That is unless you can prove it by weighing the beast. But this brings up an issue too. You’ll have to be completely ready to eat crow if you are 100 pounds off on your guess – which is entirely possible. It’s better to say he’s “big” or “huge” and leave the numbers up to the scale. If no scale is involved you can leave the “legend” of your kill up to the outfitter or a friend who wasn’t there. If you just nonchalantly mention that the bear was in the “500-pound range” it will forever be etched in bear lore of the region for generations. You’ll need to be subtle so you aren’t labeled as arrogant, but don’t speak too softly or they think your bluffing. Confident, yet humble. This is the stuff of legends.
Another bear-weight trap is to guess a bear weight based off a kill photo. This can be almost impossible because of the numerous variables involved with photography. Someone who is very familiar with bears (and trick bear photography) can usually guess within 100 pounds of what a bear weighs based upon one picture. The point is that you can’t be that accurate. If you send five pictures from different angles it might be easier. It is easy to make a bear look big in a photograph. At the same time, it’s easy to make a big bear look small, which is equally as inaccurate. I guess the International Bear Hunting Photography Commission (IBHPC) should stipulate regulations for how far back from the bear the hunter should kneel. They should also regulate the percentage of peak smile should be shown based upon the size and color phase of the bear. Obviously, if it’s big and/or colored the smile should be 100%. If it’s average and black, the smile should be less aggressive.
The most common bear-weight trap is the trail camera trap. Everyone of us do it and we all love it. We love to try to guess the weight of the bear we’ve got coming in on trail camera and it’s very difficult. There are some generalizations that can be made based upon a bears height and thickness in relation to a barrel, but it can be very tricky. The bear’s relation to the camera (is he close or far) versus his positioning against the object you’re judging him against is the biggest issue. Judging a bear based on one trail camera picture is very difficult. You really need multiple shots of the bear in numerous positions to get an accurate guess.
Bergmann’s Rule is one of the most accepted generalizations in zoology. The rule states that among warm-blooded (homeothermic) animals, members of a certain species will increase in size with increasing latitude and decreasing ambient regional temperature. An example would be Whitetail deer in Canada have larger bodies that deer in the Florida Keys. However, with black bear the rule doesn’t necessarily apply. Because of the adaptation of winter denning, bears are not actually out in the extreme cold temperatures. Exposure to these cold temperatures is what makes being larger more beneficial because the body retains heat more and is able to store more energy (larger animals can store more fat). Inversely, in warmer climates, smaller animals are able to release heat and tolerate it better. However, with bears, like in North Carolina, the big bodied ones are able to thrive. Most of the summer they just stay out of the direct sunlight and get fat on the coastal bounty of berries. Secondly, fall hard mast, particularly acorns, hickory nuts and beech nuts are loaded with carbohydrates that can add tremendous weight to bears. The far North doesn’t have hard mast. Carbohydrate rich foods and less denning time override Bergmann’s Rule in most situations with black bear. That being said, some very large bears are killed in the far North every year.