Kodiak Bears, also known as the alaskan brown bear, have existed on Kodiak Island in Alaska for 12,000 years. With their stream-lined noses and larger bone structure, they are the world’s largest bear, comparable in size to polar bears.
|Subspecies:||U. a. middendorffi|
Trinomial nameUrsus arctos middendorffi
Early May on Kodiak Island. Fog drowns the lush forest in mystery. Spattered across a black earthen floor, slushy snow melts in shadowy rings. From a wooded den, a shaggy brown head appears. Unbelievable in size, the creature emerges slowly.
Ursus arctos middendorffi, Alaska’s Kodiak Bear, awakes from her long winter’s nap. She’s not alone. Snuggled close to her massive front paws sit two cubs, the size of stuffed Teddy bears. Together they weigh only twenty pounds, and are hardly noticeable in comparison to their 500 pound mother.
Though large, the sow is lean, for she has lost 30% of her body weight over the winter. Giving birth, nursing, and caring for her young has taken its toll, and now is the season for eating.
One at a time, she carries her cubs in her jaw out of the den and sets them rolling on the forest floor.
Kodiak Island is sometimes called “Alaska’s Emerald Isle.” With knobby mountains, countless waterfalls, finger lakes, and deep narrow inlets, it could well be called Neverland, for it is the place of fantasy.
After Hawaii, it is the second largest island in the United States, 3,800 square miles largely devoted to the vast National Wildlife Refuge. With 117 salmon streams, 14 major watersheds, and less than 100 miles of road, it is the perfect place for the Kodiak Bear.
Kodiak Bears have existed on this island for 12,000 years. With their stream-lined noses and larger bone structure—they are the world’s largest bear—Kodiaks are the only scientifically recognized sub-species of the Brown Bear.
Separated as they are from the continent, Kodiaks have a smaller gene pool. But this is not the only difference.
Other bears, grizzlies and browns, require one or two hundred miles for survival, taking their food requirement into account. Here on Kodiak Island, where food is abundant, the population of bears is denser than anywhere else on earth.
There are 0.7 bears per square mile, a total population of close to 3,000 bears on Kodiak and the surrounding archipelagos. Due to their close proximity, these bruins have developed a more diverse social structure, with large boars and sows with cubs vying for dominance.
Single subadults, aged 3 to 5 years take up the bottom rungs of the hierarchy.
For good reason bears capture the interest and hearts of many. Bear watchers, who keep a proper distance, sometimes term these creatures “gentle giants.”
Adult boars stand up to ten feet tall and weigh between 750 and 1,500 pounds. (Females are considerably smaller at 350-750 pounds.) They live fascinating lives, and are as unique and unpredictable as humans.
Weighing less than one pound, hairless, blind, and toothless, cubs enter life almost as helpless as human babies. One to three cubs is born in each litter, although sows have been spotted with up to five cubs.
Litter size largely depends on the health of the mother and food availability.
By the end of their first year of life cubs weigh up to 80 pounds. For two to four years cubs remain with their mothers, who teach them the skills needed for survival before chasing them off.
No skill is more important to a Kodiak than eating, and this activity takes up most of its waking hours. Although classified as a carnivore, bears are actually omnivorous, and eat everything from grasses and berries to fish and carrion.
Eating patterns maximize nutritional content. Emerging from their dens as early as March, bears will eat grass and sedges in the spring when they grow most abundantly.
They feast on fish when the salmon run begins in the summer. These months are crucial as bears must gain three to six pounds of fat per day to survive hibernation. This is the time to catch a glimpse of the bear in the wild, as they will compete over the best fishing spots along a stream.
As the salmon supply dwindles, bears turn their attention to berries, which are at their peak as autumn approaches. If the food supply has not been adequate, a bear may not hibernate.
At about five or six years old, female Kodiaks begin breeding. Bears are serially monogamous, and boars will sometimes fight over a mate, sometimes causing serious injuries.
Mating season peaks in June, although embryo implantation will not occur until the impregnated sow is denned in November. Only if she has gained the necessary weight for hibernation will the embryo implant and the eight week gestation begin.
In response to the winter food shortage, bears hibernate through the winter months. During this time they will not eat, urinate, or defecate. Astonishingly, they lose very little bone mass or muscle tone. But hibernating bears are not unconscious.
Although their body temperatures drop close to the surrounding temperature, bears’ metabolic rates remain high. They curl up to conserve heat, and may change their positions in their dens. Aroused, bears may even attack, although this is very rare.
Only one person has been killed by a Kodiak Bear in the last 75 years. Bear-caused injuries occur about one every other year on the island.
Although they are the largest predator on the earth, bears are normally shy and not aggressive toward humans unless provoked or afraid. With their slot secure at the top of the food chain, the Kodiak’s only natural enemy is man.
Hunting on Kodiak Island is only allowed under the tightest of regulations. About 5,000 resident hunters apply per year for one of the 319 bear permits.
Non-residents are required to hire a professional guide, an expense between $10K-$15K per hunt. 160 Kodiak bears are killed each season, with 70% of them males. Otherwise, Kodiak Bears enjoy relatively long lives between 20 and 30 years.
It is not uncommon to hear a bear watcher speak of their quarry as if they are family. These outdoorsmen may track a sow and her cubs for years, and may even give them names. Some consider bears our cousins, and certainly there is a kinship. Perhaps it started when we squeezed our first Teddy Bear.