Visitors to Alaska often have many questions regarding bears. The most common bears you are likely to spot are black bears and brown bears (also called grizzlies). Although black bears and brown bears belong to the same genus, they have different physical and emotional traits and it can be easy to confuse one for the other if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
The most likely bear you’ll see in Southeast Alaska is the black bear, the most abundant and smallest of North America’s three bear species. About 100,000 live in Alaska. The black bear measures about 2 ½ feet from the shoulders when on all fours. Males are larger than females and weigh about 180-200 pounds at their lightest, which is when they emerge from hibernation in the spring. Bears will gain up to 80 more pounds before hibernating again in October. They have short, curved, retractable claws, making them excellent tree climbers and swimmers. In the spring they can be found in low valleys and along coastal shorelines as the earliest plants emerge from the winter thaw. By mid- to late summer they can be found at higher elevations, feeding on the lush growth revealed by the melting snow. Although they prefer a diet consisting of berries, fruits, and nuts, they are scavengers and will eat whatever they can get their paws on (especially salmon!) Their spectacular sense of smell often leads them straight to the source.
Despite their name, black bears vary in color between jet black and pearly white. Brown-red-colored black bears are called cinnamon bears and blue-grey-colored black bears are called glacier bears. Both varieties live in Southeast Alaska. A white-colored variety (called the Kermode bear) lives in Western B.C. but is uncommon in Alaska. Any color mother can give birth to black, cinnamon, or glacier cubs and cubs from the same mother can be different colors. As climates change and habitat ranges extend, it is likely that glacier bears and Kermode bears will become even more rare.
Did you know that the Kermode bear is actually better at catching salmon than bears with darker coats? While at night, dark-colored and light-colored bears have the same success fishing, during the day, Kermode bears are known to catch up to 30% more salmon, as their lighter fur is a better camouflage to darting salmon.
Kermode bear and cub, a subspecies of the black bear family.
Brown Bears/Grizzly Bears (The Same Species)
When people think of bears they are probably picturing the fierce grizzly bear or brown bear (identified as brown bears when found along the Southern coast of Alaska near seasonally abundant spawning salmon, and identified as grizzly bears when found more than 20 miles from the coast in the Northern and interior parts of Alaska.) The grizzly bear measures about 3 ½ feet from the shoulders when on all fours. Males are larger than females and weigh about 500 to 900 pounds. They have a distinct shoulder “hump”. Their long, straight, non-retractable claws are useful for digging for food and for their dens. Grizzly bears can be found in all types of environments, including forested areas and in the tundra. Much like black bears, they can be found in areas of vegetative abundance, low-elevation in the spring and high-elevation or near salmon streams later in the summer. Their diets are vast and depend on the season, consisting of anything they can find including berries, nuts, fruits, plant roots, fungi, salmon, mice, sheep, moose, and caribou.
Like black bears, grizzly bears can vary in color between dark brown and light blonde. The appearance of these less-common colors is thought to be a recessive trait, which must be present in both the male and female, and is more likely to be expressed in populations limited by geography, such as an island. The black bear’s coat may change as they get older, shifting from a lighter brown to a darker shade.
I See A Bear!
If you see a bear in Skagway or the Yukon, chances are it is either a black bear or grizzly bear. If you are lucky, you will see a less common variety, like what happened in Skagway in 2009 when a light-phase glacier bear cub (black bear subspecies) found its way into town after its mother, who had a normal coat, had been killed. The baby cub was a fuzzy ball of light grey and had been spotted by several locals, who deemed it the “spirit bear.”
Light-phase glacier bear in Skagway photo by Andrew Cremata, Skagway resident.
Ketchikan Tours Where You Can See Bears
- (1) Alaska Canopy Adventures Zipline, owned by Brien Salazar
- (2) Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary, owned by Brien Salazar
- (3) KetchiTour, owned and operated by Marco Angarano
- (4) Southeast Aviation, owned and operated by Jim Kosmos
Skagway Tours Where You Can See Bears
- (1) Frontier Excursions, owned and operated by Cris Siegel
- (2) Klondike Tours, owned and operated by Greg Clem