Photographing Alaska’s Bears
Photographing Alaska’s bears is a thrilling experience. They are among all land mammals, the most formidable creatures and respect for their wildness is essential. Photographing them can be done across the state, at many bear viewing destinations which offer a safe environment for both observation and photography. Just to name a few:
- Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park (Brown bears) Southwest Alaska
- McNeil River Sanctuary (Brown bears) Southwest
- Denali National Park (Grizzly bears) Interior Alaska
- Annan Creek (Black bears) Southeast Alaska
By far, the Grizzly bear, or Brown bear, inhabits the broadest range throughout the state, extending from the high arctic to the southern panhandle. Black bears cover a significant area as well, but avoid the treeless high arctic. And of course, the Polar bear, both a land and marine mammal, lives on the pack ice of arctic Alaska, inhabiting the nearby land to den and give birth.
I’ve photographed all three species, but by far, most of my efforts have focused on the brown bear. Not that photographing any bear is really “easy” but the brown bear, favoring open country in the interior and arctic, presents itself more often. Additionally, the coastal brown bear congregates in large numbers to feed on salmon, and places like Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, or the McNeil River Sanctuary offer wonderful access to these animals for photography. Polar bears, due to the remoteness of their habitat, are a little tougher to photograph. A few Inupiat native villages along the arctic coast can provide an access point for bear photography.
Bears, like all mammals, communicate. It is wise to learn their language of body posture and behavior. The National Park service offers instruction on how to act in bear country through video kiosks at Park Headquarters. For some places, like Brooks Falls in Katmai, it is required viewing.
- Grizzly bear photos >> (Ursus arctos horribilis)
- Brown bear photos >> (Ursus arctos)
- Polar bear photos >> (Ursus maritimus)
- Black bear photos >> (Ursus americanus)
Brown Bears (Ursus arctos). Formerly, taxonomists listed brown and grizzly bears as separate species.Technically, brown and grizzly bears are classified as the same species, Ursus arctos. Brown bears on Kodiak Island are classified as a distinct subspecies from those on the mainland because they are genetically and physically isolated. The shape of their skulls also differs slightly.
The term “brown bear” is commonly used to refer to the members of this species found in coastal areas where salmon is the primary food source. Brown bears found inland and in northern habitats are often called “grizzlies.” Brown Bears have furry coats in shades of blonde, brown, black, or a combination of those colors. The longer outer guard hairs of the brown bear are often tipped with white or silver, giving a “grizzled” appearance.
The brown bear resembles its close relative the black bear, Ursus americanus. The brown bear, however, is usually larger, has a more prominent shoulder hump, less prominent ears, and longer, straighter claws. Color is not a reliable key in differentiating these bears because both species have many color phases. Black bears, for example, occur in many hues of brown, and even shades of blue and white. Brown bear colors range from dark brown through light blond.
Text adapted from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Notebook Series. Text: Sterling Eide and Sterling Miller. Revised by Harry Reynolds and reprinted 1994
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus), also known as the white bear, ornanuq in some Inuit languages, is native to the Arctic. Its thick blubber and fur insulate it against the cold, and its translucent fur, which appears white or cream-colored, camouflages it from its prey. The bear has a short tail and small ears that help reduce heat loss, as well as a relatively small head and long, tapered body to streamline it for swimming.
The polar bear is a semi-aquatic marine mammal that depends mainly upon the pack ice and the marine food web for survival. It has uniquely adapted for life on a combination of land, sea, and ice and is now dependent on this combination. Scientists now believe that the projected decreases in the polar sea ice due to global warming will have a significant negative impact or even lead to extinction of this species within this century.
The population of just between 20,000-25,000 polar bears has been shrinking. In Alaska the United States Geological Survey reports now only 42 percent of polar bear cubs reach 12 months of age, down from 65 percent surviving past one year of age 15 years ago. This is a marked 33% reduced survival rate for cubs, and in just 15 years less than 2 of 3 cubs that previously survived are now making it past one year old.
American Black bear (Ursus americanus), occur over most of the forested areas of Alaska, except in some areas in southeast where islands are inhabited only by brown bears. Black bears are most often associated with forests, but depending on the season of the year, they may be found from sea level to alpine areas. They hibernate during winter and may build dens in tree cavities, under logs or rocks, in banks, caves, or culverts, and in shallow depressions.
After emerging from their winter dens in spring, they seek carrion from winter-killed animals and new shoots of many plant species, especially wetland plants.
Black bears are the smallest of the North American bears. Males are larger than females. They are considerably lighter when they emerge from winter dormancy and may be 20 percent heavier in the fall when they are fat.