Alaska Brown Bear. History and Identification. Characteristics

History. Evidence in the form of fossils, hair, and flesh, buried deep in the Alaskan icebox, proves the existence of the giant brown bear in the Pleistocene Age, and it proves that the world's largest carnivore has not changed materially in size or nature. T h e secret of his existence lies in the abundance of fish along the Alaskan coast, and this abundance has insured food for the big animal throughout the year. Zoologists believe that he arrived in Alaska via the Bering Straits and, finding food plentiful and conditions right, remained there.

Prior to the turn of the century, he was virtually unknown to hunters and zoologists, due to the inaccessibility of his range. The ranges of the Alaskan brown bear overlap those of the grizzly, and there is considerable interbreeding. For record purposes the Boone and Crockett Club classifies coastal bears as "brown bears" and those inland of a line roughly 75 miles from the coast as "grizzlies."

In the days of the open carriage, the rare, warm brown bear robe was a fashionable luxury. The demand for buffalo robes had swept the bison almost into oblivion, but the brown bear was protected by distance, and eventually by a Federal law which prohibited traffic in the hides.

To many the brown bear is widely known under a misnomer, that of "Kodiak" bear. This error arose as a result of the large numbers of these animals on Kodiak Island and from the location of a trading post on the island which received pelts from other areas.

Identification. Like the grizzly, the Alaska brown bear varies in size and weight in different areas. The technical variation in species also is the result of geography. T h e average brown bear weighs in the neighborhood of 800 pounds. The record bear, killed in 1952 by Roy Lindsley on Kodiak Island, had a skull measuring 18 5/8 inches long and 12 3/16 inches wide. As few hunters are equipped with scales capable of weighing a big brown bear, the weight is often estimated, although a few of these animals have been weighed in at up to 1,600 pounds.

The largest members of the family seem to be on the Peninsula and on Kodiak Island. There the climate is milder than in the other areas where this bear is located, with less snowfall and more food. The streams teem with spawning Pacific salmon from early July until late fall, which means a full stomach for the big brown bear.

Sexual differences also vary according to species and area, although normally the males are much larger than the females. On Kodiak Island, where the middendorffi are found, it is not at all difficult to differentiate between sexes on the basis of size, but the kidderi of the Peninsula offer something of a problem as there is very little difference in size between the male and female.

Although the zoologists have not completed the breakdown of the various species and sub-species of Alaskan brown bears, 16 species or races have been named, including: kidderi kidderi, kidderi tundrensis, eximus, innuitus, cressomts, alexandrae, townsendi, dalli, hoots, sitkensis, shirasi, uchek, gyas, middendorffi, kenaiensis, and sheldoni.

Characteristics. The sober, dignified brown bear has the characteristic typical of other members of the bear family, namely, an unpredictable behavior. He is a combination of astute caution and suspicion, and betrays a complete indifference to most of his enemies. A t one moment he will carefully check the wind. The next moment he will exhibit complete indifference, even after picking up the scent of man.

He has been reported by many as dangerous, with a high record of raging attacks, of mauling and killing men, but it is a matter of record that no hunter, protected and prepared with guide and gun , has been injured. The brown bear uses his great strength, size, and speed when escape is impossible, or when called up on to protect a mate or cubs, but he will not normally charge a hunter.

In fact, most hunters report that the individual bear will not even fight back. He prefers to elude rather than fight. Like other bears, he is omnivorous, but his vegetable diet of grass and kelp is abandoned with the first appearance of the salmon run. Just prior to hibernation he leaves the streams and ceases eating. This is his method of purging himself prior to the long hibernation. At this period his body is encased in a two- or three-inch layer of fat. Late in the fall he climbs to a den on the mountainside, the coldest part of his range, and does not emerge until early in May.

Distribution of Alaska brown bear

Breeding. The mating season begins about mid-May and continues through June. A t this period the brown bear does most of his traveling, mainly at night. Except during this period the male is a solitary animal, and though he seeks the company of a mate, he is far from gregarious, and the cubs which may have remained with the female are soon taught to keep their distance.

The female breeds only every other year, and normally has two cubs. Occasionally there is but one, and less often three, but only in rare instances four. Like the grizzly, the cubs are blind until about six weeks old, and weigh but a few ounces at birth, but grow rapidly, and when they emerge with the mother from the den they weigh from 15 to 25 pounds.

An interesting check was made in Alaska on the growth of a brown bear, the Ursus gyas, one of the larger species. The following table of weights was prepared:

The female brown bear is a good mother and a painstaking instructor. She teaches the cubs to swim and to fish, and when the cub exhibits a fear of the water she will take it by the neck and carry it across the water. The yearlings den with her the first winter, and she leads them to the lowland the second spring. Once the male appears and begins his courtship, however, she permits him to drive them off. Often the twin cubs remain together during the summer and fall and den together the following winter, but in their third year they go separate ways.

Range and Distribution. The range of the brown bear has been termed a primeval bear paradise, with special emphasis placed on the area in the vicinity of the Pavlof Volcano. Brown bears are found over a wide area on the Alaskan mainland; up the Alaska Peninsula east to Cook Inlet and north to Norton Sound; from Unalakleek north to Seward Peninsula; west to the Iliamna region from the Chugah Mountains; within the Kenai Peninsula and along the Malaspina Glacier; by the Clearwater Creek of the Stikine River; Prince William Sound and through - out the southeastern mainland.

The brown bear also inhabits a number of Alaska islands, namely: Unimak , Kodiak, Afognak, Montague, Hinchinbrook , Chichagof, Baranof, Yacobi , Kruzof, Admiralty, and Shuyak.

The range of the individual is selected with food and weather as deciding factors, although neither provides much of a problem. Late in April and early in May the bear leaves his den and moves down the mountain to the valleys, where he hunts for young grass and other greens. During the summer he spends his time on the streams, where he lives on the salmon which he sweeps to the shore with a flailing paw.

He feeds heavily all summer, but in the fall he seems to become partially sated, and eats but twice a day, usually late in the afternoon and during the night. He grows fat and sleek with but little effort. Zoologists point out that the greater weight of the brown, as compared to the grizzly, is the result of this plenitude of food and the ease with which it is obtained.


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