What’s big and brown and loves salmon?

Bears are the iconic wildlife of Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

They are famous for their size, unique in their location, and legendary in myth and imagination. Thousands of Kodiak brown bears call Alaska’s Kodiak Archipelago home, roaming the rugged mountains, fishing the salmon streams, and feasting on berries each summer and fall.

The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge protects and conserves this important habitat for bears on nearly 2 million acres of public land, supporting the majority of the population. Every year, people from all over the world travel to Kodiak for a hopeful glimpse into the world of this magnificent creature.

A sow and cubs look out over a prime fishing area. The refuge encompasses sections of Kodiak Island, Uganik Island, Ban Island, and part of Afognak Island. It was created in 1941 to conserve Kodiak brown bears and their habitat. The Kodiak Archipelago is located in the Gulf of Alaska, about 250 miles south of Anchorage. Photo credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS; map courtesy of Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.

Below, we answer some of your questions about the bears, safety in bear country, and bear viewing opportunities on the refuge.

How big are Kodiak brown bears? How much do they weigh?

Kodiak brown bears range in size, but are among the largest brown bears in the world. The average weight of an adult female is 450–650 lbs and the average weight of an adult male is 700–1000 lbs, depending on the season. Very large male bears can weigh up to 1400 lbs and stand over 10 feet high on their hind legs! When they are born in the den, bear cubs weigh only about 1 lb.

This adult female bear pauses from fishing. She is at the beginning of her summer weight gain and will put on a lot more pounds before denning in October. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

How much weight do they add on before they den?

Kodiak bears may increase their weight by 20–40 percent between late June, when they tend to be their thinnest, and the time they enter their dens in late fall. This could mean a weight gain of several hundred (!!) pounds.

How many brown bears are there at Kodiak Refuge?

We estimate about 2800–3000 bears within the 1.9 million acres of Kodiak Refuge, one of the densest populations of brown bear in the world.

Three young bear cubs explore the refuge with mom nearby. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

What do Kodiak bears eat?

Bears are omnivores and opportunistic about food. The ideal Kodiak brown bear diet is rich, balanced, and timed according to peak seasonal availability: tender green vegetation, all five species of pacific salmon, and a variety of berries. Kodiak bears especially love elderberries: they are high in protein and easy to eat in large clusters. During peak salmon season, large and dominant male bears may catch and eat around 30 salmon per day! Smaller and less dominant bears may catch and eat far less fish.

Salmon, greens, and berries are the mainstay of the Kodiak brown bear diet. Red elderberry are a particularly important berry for bears on Kodiak, and are higher in protein content than many other berries. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS and Caroline Cheung/USFWS.

Kodiak Refuge biologists are very interested in how bears move across their landscape to maximize their access to food over the summer and fall. Several recent studies include monitoring salmon streams, berry patches, and bear movement in the southwest area of the refuge.

How many cubs do they have?

Four cubs in a litter is less common than 2–3, and usually indicates that the adult female had a good summer with lots of access to food resources before going in to the den for the winter and giving birth. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

2–3 cubs in a litter is common, and we also see bears with just 1 cub or sometimes with 4. Kodiak bear families usually stay together for 2.5 years. Cubs are born in the den and spend their first summer as “cubs of the year” (COY). They will generally spend 2 more winters with their mother in the den, and separate the following summer. Occasionally, a female will keep her cubs for a third summer and winter.

Cubs of the year (COY) are cubs in their first summer (left). Bears in their second summer are “yearlings” and some cubs may even spend a third summer with their mother (likely the cubs on the right). Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

What can I do to stay safe in brown bear country?

Bears need access to food and a comfortable space around themselves and their offspring — just like people. Here are some tips to minimize your risk in bear country:

  • Learn about bears! Understanding bear behavior and habitat helps you know how to show them respect and give them enough space. Brown bear and black bear behavior can be different, and bear behavior can also vary depending on where they live.
  • Keep food and garbage away from bears. A bear that has had a positive reward by getting food from people is more likely to approach people and their camps. These bears pose a greater risk — to themselves and to humans. Help keep bears wild and safe and be responsible with bear attractants.
  • Don’t surprise bears. Many bears on Kodiak will avoid humans if they sense your presence. Travel in groups, make noise frequently, and use extra caution in areas where it would be easy to surprise one another (thick brush, loud water, traveling with the wind in your face).
  • If you encounter a bear, act calmly and assess the situation, giving the bear as much space as you can. Use your voice to let the bear know you are human and keep close with your group. Many bears will leave the area quickly. Bears that are habituated to humans may pay you little attention as they go about their business: monitor their movements from a respectful distance and enjoy the encounter!
  • Bears with cubs will act more defensively against perceived threats. Use extra caution in an area if you see signs of cubs and give plenty of space in any encounter.
Mothers with cubs need extra space and respect: they are more likely to behave defensively if they perceive a threat. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Is a brown bear a grizzly?

They are the same species, Ursus arctos. As a matter of convention, Ursus arctos found inland are called grizzlies. Coastal area Ursus arctos with access to salmon are considered coastal brown bears. The main difference is their geographical range and food resources. The coastal brown bear is found mainly in maritime areas along the coast of Alaska where there are abundant salmon resources, while the interior grizzly is found mainly within the interior areas of Alaska and feeds primarily on non-salmonid resources. Because of the difference in their food, the coastal brown bear tends to be larger than the interior grizzly.

Salmon is a key resource for coastal brown bears; interior grizzlies have little to no access to salmon. All brown bears have a pronounced hump (muscle) on their shoulders and “dished” or concave face. These are two ways to tell the difference between brown and black bears, which have a straight nosed profile and no hump. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Is a Kodiak Brown Bear different from a coastal brown bear?

A female Kodiak brown bear charges after an elusive salmon. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Kodiak brown bears belong to the same species as coastal brown bears and grizzly: Ursus arctos. However, they have been geographically isolated for about 10,000 years, and are considered a unique subspecies: Ursus arctos middendorffi. The only place you can see a Kodiak brown bear are the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago. There are no black bears (Ursus americanus) on Kodiak.

How can I see a Kodiak Brown Bear in the refuge?

Seeing a Kodiak bear in the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge is a unique and wild experience. The refuge is remote, and can only be accessed by boat or a floatplane charter, usually from the main city of Kodiak. For your safety and the safety of bears, guided options for bear viewing are a good place to start, either through extended stays at remote lodges and camps or flight-seeing trips for a half day or full day.

Wildlife viewing and photography is a priority public use on Kodiak Refuge. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Popular destinations for guided bear viewing day trips in the refuge include Frazer Lake, in the southwest area of the refuge, about 45 minutes by floatplane from the city of Kodiak. The best time to visit Frazer is July-September. The major sockeye salmon run usually peaks in late July/early August.

Public use cabins are another option to enjoy recreation opportunities and the potential to see bears on the refuge. Refuge cabins are rustic and remote: visitors should be self-sufficient and prepared for a backcountry experience.

Floatplanes land at Frazer Lake for the 3/4 mile trail to the Dog Salmon Falls and Fish Pass, where a bear viewing area allows visitors to observe bears. The bear viewing area looks out over the Dog Salmon River as it winds its way down to the ocean. Photo credits: Lisa Hupp/USFWS


Kodiak Refuge Photo Albums

“Favorite Experience” — Amazing things to see and do at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska:

Tour the Frazer Bear Viewing area in 360 degree video:

Contributed by Lisa Hupp, Outreach Specialist at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.



Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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