Alaska is home to a diverse family of bears. These bears can be divided into Brown Bears, Black Bears, and Polar Bears, and have further divisions within.
The Brown Bear is the most prevalent species, with 98% of the North American population living in Alaska. They are omnivores, so their diet is a mixture of insects, berries, plants , small animals, fish, carrion. You can find the bears at different locations, different times of the year depending on what’s on the menu, what’s ripe, and what’s swimming in the stream.
With 40,000 brown bears within the state, brown bears are the top predator in Alaska. Aside from the islands west of Unimak, and south of Frederick Sound, brown bears are found throughout the entirety of the state. Most brown bears are similar in size to polar bears, but present a muscular hump and long claws, making them more efficient at digging and catching quick moose or caribou. While typically solitary creatures, you may encounter brown bears in groups around feeding sites.
The most legendary of the Alaska Bears, the Grizzly Bear, is a subspecies of the brown bear, often identified with blond-tipped back hair and darker legs. Bears that dwell in Alaska’s interior, with their lower fat diet, are generally smaller than the brown bears that live near coastal areas and dine on salmon.
The Kodiak Bears that live on Kodiak Island are the largest of the Brown Bear family. Classified differently from those brown bears on the mainland, Kodiak Bears have been isolated from other bears since about 12,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. For this reason, they have developed differently from the mainland brown bears. Most brown bears wight between 115 and 360 kg, while the Kodiak bear is commonly between 300 and 600 kg.
Black bears are a smaller bear often found in Alaska’s interior. Because they share food sources with the Grizzly, rarely are the two in close proximity. A subspecies of the Black Bear is the Glacier Bear, which wears a lighter coat, and is found on the glacial slopes.
Despite being named “black”, there are many different colors of black bears, including dark brown, cinnamon, or white. There are approximately 100,000 black bears in Alaska alone.Contrary to brown bears, black bears have straight facial profiles and short claws. Black bears are also a rather solitary species. They only pair up briefly during mating seasons, with mothers remaining with cubs for about a year after birth.
The all-white Polar Bears only inhabit the Arctic coastal regions, and ride the ice floes, usually feeding on seals. There are 19 separate populations of polar bears within the state, all living in coastal regions, typically toward the North. Primarily white or yellowish in color, their fur can become stained leaving them to look more like a brown bear to the untrained eye. Their coat is water-repellent, and even the bottom of their paws are nearly completely covered in fur.
With the Alaska Bears in all their varieties, chance encounters are to be expected. Additionally, proper precautions and alertness of your surrounding will enhance your viewing experience and keep you safe. Bears that are feeding or protecting a recent kill are easily agitated, and mother sows with cubs will not hesitate to attack if she feels her cubs are in danger.
The chance to view Alaska’s majestic bears is an opportunity few places in the world can offer. Nature in its rawest form, the most beautiful sight on Earth.