By Bernie Barringer
Bear hunters in Wisconsin can wait up to 10 years between drawing a bear tag. Waits in Michigan are commonly 4-5 years. In Minnesota, the DNR began drastically dropping the number of bear tags in most zones around 2012. Now it takes four years to draw in some zones when a hunter could draw most every year prior to the change. The reason given by the Minnesota DNR? We are shooting too many female bears. Additionally, in Arkansas, the season has been moved to late September to help protect sows.
If boars made up a significantly larger percentage of the harvest, there would be more bear tags available in most states and the wait between drawing a tag would be much shorter. Many hunters are happy to just get a bear, any bear. In fact, success rates in most states hover around 30%, so many hunters simply do not care about the gender of the bear in front of them; they just want to get a bear. But in situations where hunters have multiple bears to choose from, waiting for an opportunity to take a male is good for the bear population and for bear hunting in general. Shooting boars is the best move for conservation and hunting.
It’s difficult to distinguish males from females even when you are posted at a bait site and have time to really look a bear over. Younger males sometimes look even more like sows than like the adult males. Even with a lot of experience, a hunter can guess wrong. Over time, experience helps, but there are a few things we can look at to help us make a decision on the bears that are difficult to distinguish.
There are a few things of course that are a dead giveaway. Many times a boar with have a tuft of hair on the rear part of his belly, which is where the penis sheath ends. In fact at times you can see the sheath, especially if the bear lifts his front end onto a barrel or partially stands on his find feet to move a log. Sows will sometimes have visible nipples and nursing sows will often have hair missing around the nipples. Seeing a bear stand up which doesn’t have a visible sheath, then you know you are looking at a female bear.
Head and Neck
Let’s start at the front end of the bear and discuss the differences in gender that can be seen right up front. First of all, most large male bears have heavily muscled bodies including the head. Muscles on the side of the face can be large enough to create the “crease” down the middle of the forehead we all look for in a big bear. I’ve seen sows with this crease as well, but it’s rare in female bears. Not all large males will have this crease, but most do.
Male bears are more likely to be scarred up around the face. Sows do not fight as aggressively and rarely show scars from open wounds around the face and snout. Males often have torn ears or ears with a bit out of it.
The head and face of a sow often has an effeminate look to it. The snout can have a pointy look to it while a male’s head seems blocky and masculine. A male’s snout usually looks deeper and the head is wider than a female’s. Ears on a sow are more “perky” looking and more towards the forehead while a male’s ears are usually more towards the side of the head, farther apart than those of a female. The heads of sows are smaller overall than those of boars. All B&C heads are boars and the vast majority of P&Y heads are also boars.
Mature males have a big thick neck, which can appear to melt right into the body. It’s often difficult to see where the skull ends and the neck begins. The neck on a sow is more distinguishable both at the body end and behind the head. Probably the best thing to remember is that a sow’s head will often look triangular and boar’s head will look boxy – even in sub adult bears.
Overall body size is an easy characteristic to help distinguish males from females, but it’s a tricky one. Sows can get very large and fool you. Most adult sow bears across North America will be in the 150- to 200-pound range in the spring and 200- to 250-pound range in the fall. But there are exceptions. I personally know of hunters shooting sows weighing up to 350 pounds on fall hunts. That’s bigger than most adult males.
The key is looking at how the weight is distributed. Females tend to have big butts. They look as if they are shaped like a pear, the head at the small end with large hips and belly. Males will have more of their weight in the shoulders and neck area. They can have big hips and bellies as well, but generally they have more muscular front quarters. They often appear to have a hump on their shoulders when they lower their head to the ground.
Tall, lanky-looking bears are almost always males. If there’s a lot of daylight under the bear, it’s probably a mature male that isn’t very filled out. Sows that are thin look low to the ground in comparison. Additionally, sows are typically shorter and squattier than males. I’ve never seen a sow that was as tall as a 55-gallon drum (36 inches). Any bear that this over 36-inches tall is almost 100% of the time going to be a male.
Legs and Feet
Those lanky boar bears have another feature that gives away their gender: large feet and ankles. Males tend to have blocky looking lower legs and ankles. Sows have ankles that look “dainty” in comparison. It’s often difficult to get a really good look at the feet of a bear. You would think this would be the easy part, but it’s surprising how often you do not get to see the feet when you see bears. But once you see the feet and ankles of a male and female bear together, it will become an important part of determining gender because the differences are quite dramatic. An experienced bear hunter can often sex a bear solely based upon his feet. A boar will have wide feet and a sow more dainty feet.
Big males have flat feet. They carry a lot of weight and both front and back feet will appear flattened out when they are putting weight on them. Their feet appear large, especially the width of the front feet will be obviously in larger males.
Determining the gender of bears by just observing them is not science of course; some of it is just a gut feeling. Most of the time, it will take a combination of these features to make a determination rather than one feature alone. Over time, viewing lots of bears is the best way to get good at distinguishing between the sexes. Once you have seen enough of them, the overall look of males versus females becomes more apparent and some can be determined at first glance. But, like me, you will still make mistakes once in a while.