The Fearsome Grizzlies

Grizzly bears, also known as brown bears, are often seen this time of year in Alaska, because of the abundance of berries and the salmon spawning. They also occur in Asia, Canada, some places in Europe, and of course in some zoos. Alaska contains 98% of the USA population of brown bears.

How can you distinguish a black bear from a grizzly? Color is not reliable in differentiating these bears because both species have color phases. The grizzly is usually larger, has a prominent shoulder hump, and longer claws. The grizzly uses his claws for digging roots or excavating burrows of small mammals. The bone structure and the muscles of the hump able the grizzly to dig and attain bursts of speed necessary for capture of moose or caribou for food.

Except for females with offspring and breeding animals, bears are typically solitary creatures. The exception is when food sources are concentrated, such as streams where the bears catch salmon. All bears should be treated with respect and safely observed from a distance of at least 100 yards. Mother bears are protective of their young. Bears also protect their food source, such as buried carcasses of moose and caribou. When I visited Denali Park, a bus driver told me a story about one of his friends that had gone hiking there on his own. The man came across some grizzly cubs and backed up slowly. However, mother bear spotted him and charged him. Now he did the usual things of making noise and raising his hands, but mother bear still came at him. He dropped to the ground and played dead. ( Usually, if nothing else works, playing dead does, but not in this poor man’s case. ) Mother bear roared in his face first, then she bit his knee, and raked her claws down his thigh. Even though he was in pain and blood pouring down his leg, he kept still. Mother bear grumbled at her cubs and left the man there. He didn’t know how long he had lied there, before he got up, and limped back to the road. He flagged a car down and was taken to a clinic for first aid. The man figured mother bear was teaching her cubs a lesson, don’t mess with humans.

At any rate, grizzlies are magnificent creatures and deserve respect. At least in Alaska, the bears have room to roam and the Dept. of Fish and Game is responsible for managing the bears too. It is equally our responsibility to recognize that not only bears, but wildlife in general need sufficient amounts of habitat to continue to thrive.


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