Seeing a bear in the wild can give even the most worldly traveler a serious case of the thrills. And, Alaska’s wide open spaces and healthy habitat mean that bear-spotting is always a possibility for visitors.
Black bears (Ursus americanus) are found in the forested areas of Southeast, Southcentral, and Interior Alaska. But don’t let the name fool you – black bears can range in color from cinnamon and brown or – in the case of a glacier bear – silvery blue. These guys are the smallest of North America’s bears, topping out at 350 pounds for a large male. Black bears tend to have a straight profile and smaller claws. One of the best places for a chance to see black bears is the Anan Creek Bear and Wildlife Observatory near Wrangell in Southeast Alaska.
Brown bears (Ursus arctos), with their big shoulder humps and crooked noses, range statewide. Like black bears, brown bears are omnivorous and will eat almost anything. Long claws are used to dig for roots and ground squirrels or, in the case of the coastal brown bears, catching salmon as they travel up rivers to spawn. So, here’s a quiz: what’s the difference between a brown bear and a grizzly? Well…nothing, actually. Alaskans tend to use the term brown bear for the larger, sleeker coastal brown bears, whose diet includes protein-rich salmon. Interior brown bears, who have to forage more for a good meal, tend to be a little “grizzlier” in appearance. It’s fairly common to see grizzly bears in Denali National Park, or travel to Kodiak, Katmai National Park, or Lake Clark National Park for coastal brown bears.
Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are the least-populous species and generally the most challenging species to view. Found only in the Arctic, polar bears are similar in size to brown bears (600-1200 lbs for males) and have a longer neck, narrower head, and smaller ears. Polar bears also lack a brown bear’s distinctive shoulder hump. If you’re fortunate enough to see a polar bear, check out its paws. They’re almost completely covered in fur – just the right thing if you’re ranging along the pack ice of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in search of seals and other marine mammals.
Alaska’s bears are most active spring through fall, based on food availability. Guided bear-viewing tours are probably the best – and safest – way of seeing these big bruins firsthand. Tour operators take guests by plane or boat to some of the most reliable viewing sites, with trips lasting from a half day to multiple days depending on location.
Bear watching in Alaska is a magical experience. Enjoy the wild adventure!