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Kodiak Brown Bears

Kodiak Brown Bears
For most people, Kodiak's identity is inexorably linked with its most famous resident, the Kodiak brown bear. The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1941 to protect this unique population. Approximately 3,000 bears live in the archipelago, with many additional coastal brown bears inhabiting the Katmai Coast. The proximity of these populations make Kodiak an ideal bear viewing locale. Bears are rarely seen on the road system, but there are many guided opportunities to see bears in the Kodiak Island Archipelago. Most local air taxis offer half-day viewing excursions. Multi-day bear viewing trips can be booked with remote lodges. Special use cabins can be reserved through the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge office and through the Kodiak State Parks office.

There are no roads to the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Six outlying Native villages and many remote lodges and refuge cabins are accessed by small plane. Additionally, charter boat operators offer trips around Kodiak Island waters. Care should be taken in selecting an operator and negotiating terms of the trip.
Bears are generally in their dens and unavailable for viewing from approximately December through April. After emerging from dens in the spring, most bears favor the high country, where they generally remain well spread out. Some bears may approach the coast at this time, but by and large, late spring is still a bit early to expect to view bears. As early as late May, local bear viewing operators receive bear viewing groups to observe and photograph bears and countless other mammal and bird species.
Beginning in mid-June, bears begin to move to salmon streams. Salmon runs are ubiquitous on Kodiak, and the timing of the local fish run in large part determines when bears can be seen fishing for one of 5 local salmon species. It is possible to view bears as late as the end of September. These majestic animals are always fascinating to observe and are indeed Kodiak Island's most regal landlord.
Physical Description
Ursus arctos middendorffi
Usually less than 20 years; but can reach 30 years
Size (shoulder): 
Mature Boars - up to 5 feet
Mature Sows - up to 3-1/2 feet
Mature Boars - 750 to 1,500 pounds
Mature Sows 350 - 750 pounds
Good to excellent by human standards
Ability to distinguish color and activity at all levels of light (considered good, but not exceptional)
"A pine needle fell in the forest.  The eagle saw it.  The deer heard it.  The bear smelled it."  (unknown author)
"... a brown (bear) ... took a thousand-pound steer a half mile up an almost vertical mountain.  Much of the way through alder tangles with trunks three or four inches thick." (Bast, Bears)
Usually black;  may be whitish on older bears;  used for digging;   foreclaws usually 4-5"; rear claws shorter
Fore 6 to 8" long, 7 to 9" wide;  Hind 12 to 16" long, 8 to10-1/2" wide
Large males
Females with cubs (occasionally most dominant)
Other adult males and females
Single subadult males
Other subadults
Aggravation   -champ, smack, woof
Anger                                    -growl
Extreme Anger                       -roar
Contentment (sow with cub)  -humming sound
Nervous                                 -bawl
Summon cubs (sows)              -bleating sound
Estimated Number
on Kodiak Island: 
2,500 to 3,000 

Life Cycle
- Denned bears are resting in a slightly lowered metabolic state
- Some bears (mainly boars) may periodically leave dens throughout the winter season
- Cubs weighing less than 1 pound are born in dens
-Boars begin emerging from winter dens for spring foraging (mainly grasses, forbs, roots)
- Lone sows and subadults begin emerging
- Sows with 1-3 year old cubs begin emerging
- Cubs weighing 10-015 pounds begin emerging with sows who have lost up to 30% body weight over the winter
- Sows begin driving off 2-3 year old cubs
- Mating season peaks
- Boars, sows and subadults begin competing over fishing spots at salmon spawning streams
- Salmon feeding  (red, pink, chum) peaks in many areas
- Bears start feeding on berries
- Cubs of the year (COYs) now weigh up to 80 pounds
- Bears feed on Coho salmon throughout Kodiak
- Large males achieve maximum weight of up to 1,500 pounds; few females weigh in excess of 650 pounds
- Bears begin entering dens
- COYs have gained up to 100 pounds in their first 9 months of life
- Most impregnated sows are denned - embryo implantation occurs
- Most Kodiak brown bear have entered winter dens (in a mild winter, some may den little or not at all)
 Hibernation is a state of dormancy and inactivity used by bears and various other animals to adapt to short winter food supplies.   "Hibernation is not so much a response to extreme cold as to a seasonal shortage of food," notes Paul Schullery in The Bears of Yellowstone.   "The bear's warm coat is as necessary to it in the den as it would be outside."

Hibernation of bears is different from other "hibernators" such as bats, marmots, squirrels, woodchucks and rodents that are in a deep sleep or state of torpidity, with a low metabolic rate and temperatures many degrees below normal.   Several weeks are required to reach that state of dormancy.

During a bear's hibernation, its body temperature does not drop to within a few degrees of the surrounding air;  its metabolic rate is comparatively high, and it may awaken during a warm period and move about outside the den, though it remains nearby.

Specific lengths of hibernation depend on climate, location, and the sex, age group, and reproductive status of the individual bear.  Some bear(s) ... do not hibernate ... in areas of available foods and warm winter weather.  Bears in poor condition, with an inadequate fat reserve, may not hibernate or for only a short period.

Hibernating bears:

  • Do not eat
  • Do not urinate
  • Do not defecate
  • Curl up to conserve heat
  • Change position in the den
  • Are sensitive to surroundings
  • Awaken and move about
  • Temporarily leave den
  • May be aroused and attack an intruder
  • Give birth to young
  • Lactate (nurse their young)
  • Provide warmth for cubs
  • Lick and groom cubs
  • Lick self
  • Slough paw pads
  • Lose weight
--all information on this page is provided by the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge (portions adapted from The Great Bear Almanac, Brown)
Preferred Foods


  • Emerging: sedges, grasses, other herbaceous vegetation
  • Carrion
  • Seaweed


  • Berries:  elderberry, salmonberry, lowbush cranberry, bearberry, crowberry
  • Devil's Club
  • Alpine:  grasses, sedges
  • Salmon:  Red, Pink, Chum, King


  • Berries:  elderberry, salmonberry, lowbush cranberry, bearberry, crowberry
  • Roots:  lupine, bog orchid, other vegetation
  • Salmon:  Red, Coho


  • Generally denned; no significant feeding

--all information on this page is provided by the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge

Reproductive rates for bears are relatively low.   The number of cubs a sow produces during her lifetime depends upon her health, longevity and first successful breeding age (usually 5 or 6), plus the size and survivability of her litters.  Because of the dominance of older and stronger boars, sexually mature young males often do mat mate.

Courtship begins soon after bears leave their winter dens.  Female estrus causes boars to become agitated, relentless, and even reckless.  "... He galloped after her, his hoarse panting plainly audible half a mile away.  ...The chase continued all day" (The Great Bear Almanac, Brown).  Mating can be noisy to the point of boisterous.  Competition among boars ranges from brief displays of dominance to protracted fights resulting in serious injury.

Sows of all bear species, except the sun bear, exhibit an adaptation known as "delayed implantation".  The female's ovum (egg), fertilized at breeding, does not implanting the uterus until a more opportune time.  In the case of the Kodiak brown bear, implantation generally does not occur until the female is ready to den for the winter.  In this manner, sows have a chance to achieve optimum physical condition during the fall feeding season before beginning their gestation period.   Sows that fail to achieve adequate physical condition may abort and re-absorb the fertilized ovum.

One to three cubs (occasionally 4 or even 5) are born in the den in late January or early February.  With an initial body weight of under 1 pound, the cubs will occupy most of the sow's attention for the next 2-4 years (most sows drive their cubs off early in their third year).  Commonly, litters are separated by 3 or 4 years, but timing of litters (as well as size) depends upon age, health, food availability, human impacts, and the breeding activity of boars.

--information provided by the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge
Body Language
Among humans, body language accounts for a large part of meaningful communication.  The way we sit, stand, gesture, or orient ourselves in a group often helps others make accurate judgments about our thoughts, feelings and intentions.  Among bears, body language is the primary mode of communication.

When a bear becomes aware of your presence during a field encounter, it will "talk" to you.  No, it won't ask you how your day is going--it may not vocalize at all.  But almost certainly it will exhibit behaviors which can usually be "read" with a high degree of confidence.  Here are some of the "readable" behaviors generally exhibited by bears.

Unconcerned Bears

  • Continue with normal activities
  • Maintain course of travel
  • Continue fishing or other feeding
  • Continue nursing of cubs
  • Continue resting

Nervous or Curious Bears

  • Discontinue or alter normal activities
  • Move off trail
  • Break into a run
  • Rear on hind legs to look and smell
  • Pace and look around

Moderately Agitated Bears

  • Woof
  • Walk stiff-legged
  • Quarter away with lowered head
  • Salivate
  • Moan or growl

Angry Bears

  • Pop jaws
  • Salivate
  • Bounce on front legs
  • Slap brush or nearby objets
  • Bluff charge

There is a catch!  Bears are not totally predictable; but that's part of their mystique, majesty, and glamour.  They also live in a world of bluff ... without it, constant fighting would severely reduce survivability within the species.

So how does a person tell a bluff charge or other aggressive behavior from the real thing?  Years of experience!  Ask your guide for more information.  He or she will have additional tips for you.  But do it when you've got plenty of spare time ... it's a tough question to ask without getting a yarn or two in return!

In the meantime, stay away from sows with cubs, advertise your presence with plenty of noise, never crowd any bear, and do your best to accurately "read" bear behavior!

--information provided by the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge
Research & Management 
Successful management of any wildlife species is largely dependent upon available knowledge of the species and its habitat.  In the September/October, 1991 issue of Alaska's Wildlife (Managing Brown Bear, Cherry), it was stated that ... "Over the past 10 years more time and money has gone into research on brown bears than on any other species in Alaska.".  That effort continues today.   And on the Kodiak Archipelago, a long-standing State/Federal partnership has been responsible for one of Alaska's most successful bear research programs.

Research biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have collected an impressive amount of data concerning Kodiak brown bears.  In the 1991 article, ADF&G biologist Roger Smith said, "The USFWS and ADF&G are committed to ongoing research projects.  We have been involved with the bear tagging program since 1982.  Since then, USFWS and ADF&G have captured 310 brown bears.  Approximately 200 of these have been radio-collared.    

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information provided by the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge

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