Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Grizzly Bear - Denali NP

I have always been confused by the terminology used for brown bears in the U.S. There were the grizzly bears in Yellowstone and Glacier NP, the larger brown bears in Alaska and the really, really big Kodiak bears on Kodiak Island in Alaska. It turns out that these bears are all subspecies of brown bears that are found around the world. The term "grizzly" came from Lewis & Clark and probably referred to the "grizzled" or golden and gray tips that brown bears have. Scientists have struggled over how many subspecies of brown bear there are. In North America, scientists had generally recognized the following as separate subspecies: (a) Alaskan brown bear (found in coastal Alaska); (b) the Dall Island brown bear (found in southeastern Alaska on Dall Island which is west of Prince of Wales Island); (c) the Alaska Peninsula brown bear (found on the peninsula going southwest from mainland Alaska and ending in the Aleutian Islands); (d) the grizzly bear (found in northern and western Canada, inland Alaska and the northwestern U.S.); (e) the Mexican grizzly (now extinct, which was found in Mexico and in the southwestern U.S., including Arizona and Texas); (f) the ABC or Clade II bear (found on the ABC islands of Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof in southeastern Alaska); (g) the Stikine brown bear (found in northwestern Canada from the Stikine River to the Skeena River); and (h) the California grizzly (which was found in California and is now extinct). With the availability of genetic testing, scientists now generally recognize only one subspecies of brown bear in North America, the North American brown bear, and two ecotypes of that subspecies, the coastal brown bear and the inland grizzly bear. Ecotypes are capable of breeding with each other, but have distinct differences due to geographical conditions. The coastal brown bear can get as large as 1,500 pounds because it has a steady diet of fatty spawning salmon. The inland grizzly may be as little as 180 pounds in Yukon because its diet is more roots, berries and small rodents. 

While in Alaska we visited Denali National Park. Denali, including its Preserve, is 9,492 square miles, or 2.75 times larger than Yellowstone National Park which is 3,468 square miles. Only one road, 92 miles long, goes into the interior of Denali. Private cars can only go in 15 miles on the road (which we did one evening). To go beyond that, you have to go on a National Park bus or on the bus of a private concessionaire.  We took a private tour bus all the way to the end of the road (to a place called Kantishna) and back out the same day. We started at 6:00 a.m. and finished after 7:00 p.m. The bus included stops at various visitor centers along the way, a lunch at one of the four privately owned resorts (we visited the Denali Backcountry Lodge) at the end of the road, including a botany walk, and stops to view wildlife along the way. 

Two of our exciting sightings along the road were grizzly bears. These would be the grizzly bear subspecies under the old terminology and the inland grizzly bear ecotype under more modern terminology. These grizzlies have a meat diet consisting mainly of Arctic ground squirrels and moose calves, but would also include marmots, voles, fish and caribou calves. However, depending on time of year and circumstances, the diet may be as much as 90% vegetarian, the reason it is so much smaller than the coastal brown bear. They eat various berries, berries, berries galore, including blueberries, in late summer and fall; insects that may be available in large quantities such as bees, ants and ladybugs; roots in spring and fall, including peavine roots; and grasses, plant leaves and stems in summer. 

One of our guides told us that coastal grizzlies are easier and safer to get close to, because there are enough salmon to go around and they learn to share them with other bears and to tolerate humans. Inland bears are in competition for more meager rations and thus less friendly and accommodating. 

Our first bear sighting was a mother grizzly and two cubs. They were quite a bit distant, perhaps 80 yards or more, between the road and a stream. They were on the other side of the bus from where we were sitting, so it was more difficult for us to get good pictures. They were mostly among the bushes eating berries and so we did not get any great photos of them in plain view. I share my best pictures, such as they are. 
Mama grizzly with her nose in the bushes.
Mama with one or both of her cubs near her and the stream behind her.
Mama feeding on berries.
One of the babies with an actual view of the face.
Another view of the two cubs and mama grizzly visible as a brown lump to the left.
I alluded to a botany walk we took near the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna, at the end of the 92 mile road. We encountered many, many blueberry bushes and were able to sample the blueberries. They were much smaller than our cultivated blueberries and less sweet and more tart. From the walk we could readily see that the berries were widely available for the bears. 
This scene is full of blue berry bushes. They are the more grayish bushes among the greenery.
Blueberries on a bush.
Some blueberries we picked and ate.
Denali NP is vast and the area we traveled through was almost entirely wilderness, where no motorized vehicles are allowed, other than on the one road we were on. When the road is covered with snow, as it is much of the year, the road is not plowed. Travel is by use of dog sled and the NPS actually maintains dog sleds for purposes of travel, including rescues, inside the park.
Two glacial rivers (with no fish because of the heavy glacial silt) merge together. The second grizzly bear we saw was very near this spot on the mountain below us. This is prime grizzly country.
A picture very near the spot above, but with a closer view of the upper mountains.
A larger river, a result of merger of many more of those glacial melt rivers,with some larger mountains on the other side.
A closer look into the misty mountains across the river.
More prime grizzly habitat.

Our second sighting was a solo grizzly on a mountain side below and away from us about 100 yards. It was on our side of the bus and did get away from vegetation so that we got better views. Both sets of bears had much darker limbs and faces than the rest of their bodies. 

The second grizzly. We got substantially better views.

Its dark face and legs really stand out.
It was a thrill to see some grizzlies, by far the best views of grizzlies I'd had so far.


  1. How fun to see these animals in the wild, especially the mother with cubs. Beautiful scenery to boot!

  2. I love the shaggy pelt of the second one. Awe-inspiring animals! I wouldn't want to meet one while traveling by dog sled, however.

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