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Meet the bears of Alaska

Published:   |   Updated: September 3, 2013 at 04:20 PM

Three bear species can be encountered in Alaska: black, brown and polar.

The most numerous are black bears (Ursus americanus), numbering about 100,000 and averaging around 200 pounds. Black bears also can be brown, reddish, cinnamon, gray, white and even bluish (called glacier bears). Brown bears usually will not share their territories with black bears, and trespassers are brutally dispatched.

Brown bears (Ursus arctos) occupy most of Alaska. Some believe that Kodiak bears (Ursus a. middendorffi) are a subspecies due to their isolation on Kodiak Island, but Sean Farley, a research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and others believe they’re essentially the same species of coastal brown bears found elsewhere. According to Zack Tappan, coastal brown bears in the Katmai National Park region are just as big if not bigger than Kodiak bears. Brown bears can reach 1,500 pounds. An estimated 30,000 inhabit Alaska, which comprises 98 percent of the U.S. brown bear population. Coastal brown bears also generally are larger than interior brown bears (commonly called grizzlies) due to the richer protein they consume during the salmon runs.

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) can grow nearly as large as coastal brown bears but lack the hump. Polar bears feature longer necks, smaller heads and tinier ears than other bears, and the bottoms of their large paws are covered in fur to aid in swimming and for warmth. Reaching 1,200 pounds, they’re mainly meat eaters and generally considered more of an attack threat to humans than brown or black bears. They number about 3,500 in Alaska.

Bears are omnivorous, meaning they’ll eat plants or animals. Depending on seasons, conditions and geography, a bear might feed mainly on grasses and berries while another solely on animals such as fish, moose, caribou, seals and walruses. Bears tend to be solitary except during mating season, but often congregate to feed at salmon streams.

So what are the practical options if confronted with an angry bear? There’s the story about two photographers who saw a bear charging them. “What do we do now?” asked one. Replied the friend, “I don’t know, but whichever one of us is faster is going to get a great picture.”

Joking aside, in the rare happenstance that an attack does seem imminent, we’ve already suggested making noise, carrying a flare, bear spray or firearm where allowed, and staying in a group. A satellite phone would be handy too. But if despite all precautions a bear still wants a piece of you, it’s best to lie on the ground with hands protecting the back of your neck with a brown bear, fight back with a black bear, and if it’s a polar bear, say a prayer.

Doug Kelly

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