We Can Expect to Meet Bears Almost Anywhere
Brown bears occur almost everywhere. Densities are highest in places with few people, good habitat, and plentiful salmon. These places include Kodiak Island, the Alaska Peninsula, and the northern islands of Southeast Alaska. Black bears range over the three-fourths of the state where there are trees. There are no black bears on Kodiak and most of the Alaska Peninsula. They are rare north of the Brooks Range, on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and the Seward Peninsula. In Southeast Alaska black bears are common on the mainland and most islands with the exception of Admiralty, Baranof, Chichagof, and Kruzof.
Black and Brown Bears Come in Many Different Colors
Although most black bears in Alaska are black, they can be brown or even bluish gray like the “glacier bears” of Southeast Alaska. Black bears with brown coats have been seen near Anchorage but not on the Kenai Peninsula. Brown bear colors vary from very blond, to dark chocolate brown, to black. Male brown bears are usually darker than females.
Brown and Black Bears Look Different
Brown bears have a pronounced hump between their shoulders. Black bear faces have straight or “Roman” profiles while brown bear faces tend to be slightly concave or “dish shaped”. Brown bear muzzles are the same color as their coats, while those of black bears often have tan or brown markings. Black bears have short curved claws for climbing trees. Brown bear claws are apt to be twice as long and much straighter. It is extremely difficult to identify a bear by its tracks, but it helps to know that the toes of a black bear form a slight arc while those of a brown bear are almost straight across. The toe imprints of a brown bear are almost joined together, while those of a black bear are wider apart.
Brown Bears are Big
Brown bears come in all sizes and shapes. A first-year cub emerging from its den might weigh 15 pounds while an adult male, fat from a summer of gorging on salmon, can weigh half a ton or more. Young bears and cubs may double their body weight during the summer and fall months. Mature bears gain 30 or 40 percent of their body weight during the summer and may put on several pounds of weight in a single day. At mid-summer a mature female brown bear weighs between 250 and 600 pounds. A mature male can weigh anywhere from 600 to well over 1,000 pounds. One tranquilized male on the Alaska Peninsula weighed 1,275 pounds in the spring. There is a report of a bear on Kodiak Island tipping the scales at almost 1,500 pounds. The farther north you go in Alaska, the smaller the brown bears tend to be, although there are some large ones in the interior. Size is somewhat dependent on what the bears have to eat and for how long they have to eat it. Coastal and Kodiak brown bears gain their great size because of the availability of salmon during the summer and fall.
The Bear Facts is from “Living in Harmony with Bears” by Derek Stonorov, published by the National Audubon Society and used with their permission.