Idaho is truly a state of wild lands, with seven national parks covering a little over 20 million protected acres. This makes up almost half of the state!
There are thousands of miles of wilderness trails for hiking, horseback riding, skiing, and more.
If you want to get out into nature and experience the vast lands of Idaho, it’s likely you’ll encounter some wildlife while you’re there. Since a large portion of Idaho’s land is federally protected, it provides a refuge for many types of animals.
Popular destinations where you can explore nature and encounter wildlife include the Idaho Panhandle and Yellowstone National Park. The Idaho Panhandle encompasses the northern tip of the state. It includes the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, which are three national forests in Idaho that include more than 2.5 million acres that spread into Montana and Washington.
But if you’re planning a visit, you might be wondering:
Are there bears in Idaho? How common are bear attacks in Idaho and is it something visitors should be worried about?
Types of Bears Found in Idaho
Most of the big game in Idaho lives in the northern region of the Idaho Panhandle.
Some animals can be encountered in central Idaho and along the eastern border in Yellowstone National Park. Bears are fairly common throughout Idaho, except for the southernmost portion of the state.
There are two types of bear species in Idaho, which include:
- Grizzly bears
- American black bears
Grizzlies aren’t as widely distributed across North America as American black bears. Grizzly bears can mostly be found in Alaska, parts of Canada, and the northwestern portion of the U.S.
American black bears are more common throughout most of Idaho.
Grizzly bears are one of two brown bear species found in North America. The kodiak bear is a subspecies of brown bear exclusively found on the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago.
The grizzly bear is a brown bear subspecies found in some parts of Canada, most of Alaska, and the northwestern region of the U.S.
The grizzly bear is listed as threatened on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species list for the lower 48 states. This means that grizzlies are federally protected in the states.
Areas where grizzlies are present in Idaho are considered recovery areas, which work to establish a larger population.
Appearance and Size
Grizzly bears are the largest bear species found in the lower 48 states.
Their fur color is light to dark brown. These bears can be distinguished from black bears because they have a distinctive hump between their shoulders made of muscle. Their claws are longer and their tracks are more square.
Grizzlies use their long, sharp claws to dig up roots or into logs to find insects.
Male grizzlies are larger than females. They can average between 200 and 600 pounds, with some males weighing in at over 700 pounds!
Idaho Grizzly Bear Distribution and Population
There are two main regions in Idaho where grizzlies can be found.
These areas include the northern tip of the state known as the Idaho Panhandle and the eastern border that meets with Montana and Wyoming.
The Yellowstone National Park has a fairly large grizzly bear population, consisting of approximately 728 bears. Only a small portion of this population’s home range creeps into Idaho.
The lush temperate rainforest of the Idaho Panhandle provides an ideal habitat for grizzly bears. It also encompasses the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, which covers about 2,600 square miles.
This area has about 50 grizzlies. Another 35 to 40 grizzlies reside in the Selkirk Mountains in the Idaho Panhandle.
Ideal habitats for grizzlies include forests intermixed with meadows and grasslands. Lakes and rivers are important water sources for these creatures.
Grizzlies are protected in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests because it’s considered a designated wilderness area of federally protected lands. There are several lakes and rivers in this area that attract grizzlies and other large game, such as elk, wolves, and caribou.
Diet and Food Habits
Grizzlies are omnivores and eat a wide variety of plants, insects, and mammals. Some might prey on domestic animals like cattle and sheep. Common spring and summer food sources include fleshy roots, berries and fruits, and grasses.
Other food sources include fish, especially salmon, from rivers. They also eat smaller mammals, such as ground squirrels. Thanks to their size, grizzlies can hunt down larger game, including moose, caribou, and deer.
American Black Bear
The American black bear is the most widely distributed bear species in North America and in Idaho. There are 16 subspecies of the American black bear, two of which live in Idaho.
The Olympic black bear (Ursus americanus altifrontalis) and the cinnamon bear (Ursus americanus cinnamomum) can be found in Idaho.
Cinnamon bears could be confused with grizzlies because they have reddish-brown fur, rather than black.
There are significantly more black bears in Idaho than grizzlies.
Encounters with black bears are more likely than grizzlies because of their larger range. They mainly reside in areas with coniferous or deciduous forests. Forested areas provide black bears with protection and ample food.
Appearance and Size
Black bears can range in color from black to reddish-brown in Idaho. American black bears have a light tan snout and some have a white fur patch on their chest. The cinnamon bear’s fur is more red than grizzly bear fur. Their snout is also a light tan color.
Cinnamon bears can be distinguished from grizzlies because they lack a prominent hump between their shoulders. Females can also be much smaller, but males may be more similar in size.
American black bears typically weigh no more than 600 pounds. They have short, thick claws that help them climb trees. Their tracks appear more rounded than grizzly tracks.
Idaho Black Bear Distribution and Population
Black bears are present in most of Idaho year-round, except for the south central and southwestern regions of the state. They’re fairly abundant in northern and central Idaho and have been observed in more than 20 counties. American black bear populations are healthy in most states.
The Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) estimates that there are between 20,000 and 30,000 black bears that roam the state. The population is expected to increase, which means sightings are also expected to become more common.
Diet and Food Habits
Black bears are omnivores. They eat a variety of berries and vegetation and smaller mammals. They’re more inclined to visit the backyards of Idaho residents in search of food.
Although they’re solitary animals, black bears will travel farther from their home range to find food. Many are attracted to areas where human trash is frequently found. They also eat seeds from bird feeders.
Food availability affects black bear behavior. If they’re able to consistently find food in the fall, they may enter dens later than usual.
Bear Hunting and Hibernation Season in Idaho
Grizzlies and black bears enter dens around the same time each year. Most bears enter dens to go into a dormant state in mid to late fall. After mating season in the early summer, bears spend most of their time searching for food to build up their fat reserves for winter.
Once they enter their dens, bears slow their metabolism and live off their fat until they come out again in early spring.
Females delay embryo implantation until they enter their den. Two or three cubs are usually born in one litter around January and they remain with their mother for at least one year.
Bear hunting regulations in Idaho may change on a yearly basis depending on certain conditions, such as population size.
Grizzlies aren’t allowed to be hunted in Idaho because they’re protected by the Endangered Species Act. Since their population is threatened, harming or killing grizzly bears in Idaho is illegal, unless it’s for self-defense.
The number of black bears allowed to be harvested is usually restricted. For example, the bag limit for the 2022 fall and 2023 spring hunting seasons is listed as one black bear per legal tag in a person’s possession. Females accompanied by cubs are not allowed to be hunted.
Certain restrictions are placed on select dates for hunting season and differ depending on the region. Fall bear hunting season begins in late August and ends in late October for many areas. Spring bear hunting season begins in mid-April and ends between May and June for most regions.
Bear hunting season for black bears is used as part of a wildlife management plan to keep the black bear population under control.
Bear Encounters & Attacks in Idaho
Bear attacks in the lower 48 states are very rare due to several factors.
Black bears are not considered aggressive, unless it’s a mother bear with her cubs. Grizzly bear attacks are rare because of the small population size, even though they’re more aggressive.
Since bear hunting increases the chances of encounters with bears, attacks are more common under these circumstances. In June 2022, two Idaho hunters encountered a grizzly while hunting black bears in Boundary County.
The grizzly continued to approach the hunters despite shouting in hopes it would run away. The grizzly was shot and the IDFG determined that it was killed as a means of self-defense.
Another grizzly attack incident occurred in the eastern Idaho city Island Park, located near Yellowstone.
A man was on a trail jogging when he encountered a female grizzly with a cub. The bear allegedly charged the man, who laid down on the ground and played dead while attempting to protect himself. He was injured, but managed to make it back to his cabin to call for help.
Black bear attacks are very rare, but encounters are quite common for visitors and residents. The likelihood of seeing a grizzly is less common, but chances of encountering one increase when adventuring near Yellowstone and throughout the northern Idaho Panhandle.
Encounters typically increase in early spring when bears are just leaving their dens. Another burst of sightings begin in early summer due to males searching for mates farther outside of their home range.
If you’re planning on visiting Idaho or you’re already there, chances are you might encounter a bear during your adventure.
Black bears are solitary creatures and not considered aggressive. Female black bears with cubs may be more aggressive than usual as a means to protect their young.
Grizzlies are less likely to be encountered because of their small population size, however, these bears tend to be more aggressive if encountered.
If you’re visiting the wild forested lands of the Idaho Panhandle, it’s more likely you’ll run into a black bear or grizzly bear.
Only black bears are common residents in central Idaho. If you visit Yellowstone National Park in Idaho, you might see a grizzly or black bear.
If you do happen upon a black bear, don’t panic. They aren’t usually aggressive, so your best bet is to slowly back away. If you encounter a grizzly bear and it becomes aggressive, your smartest chance may be to play dead until it loses interest.
The southernmost regions of Idaho are outside of the grizzly and black bear ranges in the state. If you want to decrease your chances of encountering a bear, there are still many outdoor activities in southern Idaho that you can enjoy!
For more bear guides, check out:
Hope this helps!