Understanding Skull Size in Evaluating Trophy Black Bear
Bear Hunting Magazine|November - December 2020
Black bears can be one of the most difficult big game animals to judge before the shot.
Clay Newcomb

It can be difficult for hunters to decide what makes a trophy bear, or more importantly, a bear that is going to meet their personal standard. Unlike antlered ungulates, several factors play into the overall evaluation of a black bear. In any type of deer hunting, antlers are everything. A hunter doesn’t care if it has a small body or if its hide is in good shape, as long at the horns are all there. In bears, four factors play into trophy evaluation and discussion of the four areas is relevant: skull size, body weight, hide quality and color phase. Not all four are equal and combinations often outweigh strength in one specific trait. In this article we’ll discuss skull size. Read on, you might just learn something about bear skulls.

Skull Size

Skull size is the basis by which all the record keeping organizations score bears. It is, in essence, like the “horns” of a whitetail or elk. The skull is a significant part of the trophy status of a bear, albeit, the most difficult to estimate. Bears are measured by the dried length and width of their skulls. Record keeping organizations choose to use the skull because it’s the one thing on a bear that can be measured consistently. Weight may seem the best bear-to-bear comparator, but it poses many variables, such as how to certify scales and whether to use dressed or undressed weights. What about animals that are capped and quartered during retrieval? Clearly, skull size is the best way to compare and track bears.

It is difficult to estimate the exact score of a bear while it’s alive because the units of measurement that separate them are usually in 16ths of an inch. Under the hair, muscle and fat of a bear’s face, it’s hard to be exact. It is possible, however, to grade bears into size categories with some consistency in the field. Categorizing animals is simplistic at best and doesn’t tell the whole story, but it helps. The four classifications I use to think about skull sizes would be like shirt sizes – small, medium, large and extra-large:

• Bear < 18” (bears less than 18 inches) (small)

• 18-19 (medium)

• 19 -21 (large)

• Bear > 21 (X-large) (bears great -er than 21 inches)

To put this into perspective, an 18” bear would be comparable to a 125” whitetail, a 21-inch bear to a 170-inch whitetail (typical). We created a chart to compare whitetail scores with black bear scores. Most people are familiar with the whitetail scoring system, and understanding how your bear compares will give you a greater sense of what you’ve got. A 19-inch bear might not mean anything to you until you realize that it’s equivalent to a 145-inch whitetail, a true trophy for most hunters.

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