Kodiak Bear, Ursus arctos middendorffi

The Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi), also known as the American brown bear, the Kodiak brown bear, or the Alaskan grizzly bear, is a subspecies of the brown bear. It can be found in southwestern Alaska, on the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago. Most coastal bears that occur in Alaska are called Kodiak bears, but the true Kodiak bear only inhabits the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago.

The Kodiak bear was first described as a distinct species by the taxonomist C.H. Merriam. Merriam named it Ursus middendorffi, after Dr. A. Th. von Middendorff, an esteemed Baltic naturalist. After many studies, many subspecies of the brown bear were classified under one name, Ursus arctos horribili, but the Kodiak bear remained a distinct species. Recent studies have shown that it is closely related to brown bears found in Kamchatka, Russia and on the Alaska Peninsula, causing most experts to assert that the Kodiak bear became an isolated species around ten to twelve thousand years ago. Because of this isolation, it is thought that this species may be more vulnerable to disease, although studies have not shown a lack in genetic diversity caused by this.

The Kodiak bear can vary in weight depending upon the sex. Females can reach an average weight between 500 and 700 pounds, while males can weigh between 800 and 1,400 pounds. These estimates are rough, because very few individuals have been weighed in the wild. Adult males have been recorded weighing up to 1,500 pounds when food is abundant. After the bears emerge from hibernation, they naturally weigh much less than when entering hibernation. Captive bears are known to reach greater weights than wild bears. Males can reach an average height of around 4.5 feet at the shoulder, while females are typically shorter. When standing on hind legs, an average adult male can reach a height of ten feet. This species is the largest of all brown bear subspecies. In order to attain the average size of most bears, experts calculate the size of the skull. Hunters and management agencies will use calipers to measure the length and width of each skull. By using this method, the largest North American bear to be killed had a skull size of 30.75 inches, and it belonged to a Kodiak bear. The coloring of this bear can vary from blondish brown to reddish brown to brown, with females typically appearing to be lighter in color. Young Kodiak bears will usually retain a white ring of fur around their neck for a couple of years.

The Kodiak bear is usually active during the day, choosing to be active at night when space or food is scarce. Although this subspecies does not defend a strict territory, each bear will have a home range that it uses every year. The home ranges of females are typically small, measuring about 50 square miles per bear, while males hold ranges of about 97 square miles, and these ranges tend to overlap each other. The Kodiak bear is able to thrive in such small areas due to the abundance of food found in its range.

Although the home ranges of the Kodiak bear overlap, individuals are typically solitary. If food is scarce or occurs in small areas, this subspecies will gather in groups, with the largest recorded group numbering 60 bears. Groups can be seen around garbage dumps, berry patches, dead whales, and near rivers where salmon spawn. A social structure within the groups allows each bear to minimize violent encounters and consume large amounts of food. Interactions consist of a number of vocalizations and physical cues. The sensory abilities of this species have not been tested, but it is thought that the average Kodiak bear has eyesight similar to a human. Its sense of hearing is thought to be similar to that of a dog, and its sense of smell is said to be four times greater than the average dog. The intelligence level of these bears is thought to rest between that of a dog and a primate, and this allows the bears to have individual personalities.

The mating season for the Kodiak bear occurs during the months of May to June. Once a mating pair comes together, they will remain in the same area for up to two weeks. After breeding is successful, females will delay pregnancy until the fall season. Pregnant females are the first to enter dens and begin hibernation, and they will give birth within their dens in January or February. The cubs will nurse for a few months, until May or June when the mother and cubs will emerge from the den. The average litter contains between two and three cubs, but mothers have been seen with up to five or six cubs. It is thought that this occurs when mothers adopt cubs who have become orphans. Cubs will remain with their mother for up to three years, but it is common for most cubs to perish before this time, due to infanticide by adult male bears or other factors. Most bears reach sexual maturity at five years of age.

The Kodiak bear will enter hibernation in late October, with pregnant females entering first and emerging last. Their dens are made when the bears dig into hills or mountain sides, although this may vary on different islands. Bears located in southern areas typically hibernate for shorter periods than bears located in northern areas, and some bears will remain active during hibernation or forego hibernation completely.

Because the Kodiak bear lives in an area with varied habitats, there is a wide variety of food available for it to consume. When the bears emerge from their dens, they will first feed on any young vegetation growing or carrion that is found in the area. Many types of vegetation are eaten during the summer months until salmon return to the rivers to spawn. Between the months of May to September, most Kodiak bears will consume all five species of salmon that spawn in lakes and streams. After the salmon leave the area, the bears will consume large amounts of various berries, as well as invertebrates and seaweed along the coastline. Although deer and mountain goats occur in large numbers in its range, it will not often consume these species.

The Kodiak bear will typically avoid interactions with humans if it can, but there are exceptions to this. If the bear is surprised or feels threatened, it will naturally defend itself. Other interactions occur when bears enter into human populated areas to forage through garbage or when they find a carcass killed by humans. Safety measures can be taken to avoid conflicts, and it is suggested that people in the range of bears learn about their behaviors and needs. The most recent fatal encounter that happened between a human and a Kodiak bear occurred in 1999 on the Kodiak archipelago. A Kodiak bear attacked two hunters after they left one kill to find another. One hunter was killed after they returned to carcass, and the other was injured before he managed to kill the attacking bear. Attacks are not often fatal, but they do occur about every other year in the Kodiak bear’s range.

Early human settlers in the Kodiak bear’s range did not often hunt the species, instead consuming creatures from the surrounding sea. When the bears were hunted, their fur, meat, and teeth were utilized. These early inhabitants, called Alutiiqs, considered the bear to be closely associated with the spirit world, and they also noted the bear’s similar mannerisms to humans. In the late 18th century, Russian explores came to the islands to hunt the Kodiak bear to acquire its fur in large numbers.  The fur of this bear could be purchased for the same amount as sea otter fur, and both species were hunted. Hunting of the sea otter subsided in 1867 when the United States attained Alaska, causing an increase in bear hunting. In the 1880’s, fisheries increased over the Kodiak archipelago, and bears were not only hunted for their fur but also as a competing species for fish. During this time, scientists and sportsman recognized that the Kodiak bear was a unique species and began pushing the idea that the bears were being overhunted.

In 1925, the newly established Alaska Game Commission was prompted by the territorial government to end commercial bear hunting. It was thought that these new regulations were causing the bear populations to increase, because in 1930, local farmers reported problem bears on their northeastern lands where once there were none. Local fisheries were also experiencing problems because of the bears, and both farmers and fishers demanded action to protect their assets. In order to protect humans and the Kodiak bear, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in 1941, which consists of about half of the Kodiak archipelago. This refuge contains about 1,900,000 acres of land that ranges across two thirds of Kodiak Island, the entire island of Ban, northwestern Afognak Island in the Red Peaks, and Uganik Island.

Although an American president created the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in 1941, Alaska did not take over the park’s management until 1959 when it became a recognized state. The length of the bear hunting season was reduced by the Alaska Board of Game on Raspberry and Afognak islands. Hunting seasons were also reduced on Kodiak Island, but only in the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Despite these efforts to preserve and potentially raise the population numbers of the Kodiak bear, the eradication of “problem bears” continued until 1970.

In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) solved many issues of land ownership with Native Alaskans across the state. In 1980, lands that were once managed by the federal government fell under the management of Native Corporations under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). This caused the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge to lose 310,000 acres of vital Kodiak bear habitat. Afognak Island began construction of its first logging road in 1975, and in 1977, timber harvesting began. Although this did affect bear habitat, the construction the Terror Lake hydroelectric project, which included a natural dam and a six-mile long tunnel through Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, caused much concern in 1979. To appease the public, a settlement was negotiated in 1981 that promised more research of the brown bear and the establishment of the Kodiak Brown Bear Trust. In 1985, hydroelectric project was competed, and this caused an increase in bear research projects between 1980’s and 1990’s.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred in 1985 did not directly affect the Kodiak bear, although some individuals were displaced from their usual home ranges. There were no reports of injury to cleanup crews or bears during this time, and the federal and state governments worked with Exxon to reach optimum efficiency in cleaning up the oil. The incident actually helped the bears, because thousands of workers learned important information about the subspecies, and the funds acquired from the settlement were used to aid in land acquisition for the bears. Over eighty percent of the lands lost from ANCSA and ANILCA were re-acquired by the late 20th century, and were gathered directly using the settlement funds or by conservation efforts. Land was purchased in the United States and on the Shuyak islands during this time. Conservation groups cooperated with sportsman to lobby for the acquisition of these lands, working closely with the Kodiak Brown Bear Trust.

In 2001, Alaska Department of Fish and Game began working with the newly established Citizens Advisory Committee, along with the Kodiak NWR, to assess the threats to Kodiak bear, including habitat loss and hunting. Over the course of several months, these three groups and nine other public and individual groups created the Kodiak Archipelago Bear Conservation and Management Plan, which contained over 270 proposed conservation efforts. The representatives for all twelve groups created the plan by consensus, despite the wide variety of ideas within the groups. The plan called for education and research about the Kodiak bear, protection of vital bear habitat, and the continued efforts of previous conservation efforts.  The federal government took action in managing the advisory groups’ plan within its legal and finical abilities.

The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game conduct habitat management and research efforts, while the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Board of Game regulate bear hunting. These groups maintain a strict system in thirty-two areas that control the hunting in two seasons. The first season occurs in the spring, from April 1 to May 15 and the second occurs in the fall between October 25 and November 30.  Each year around 4,500 people apply for hunting permits, but only 496 permits are given out, with two thirds of the licenses going to local hunters.

Hunters from other regions are required to hire a guide, which can cost between ten thousand and twenty-two thousand dollars, and they must attend a brief orientation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) office before hunting and sign out at the same office before leaving the island. If a bear is killed illegally, the ADF&G and a biologist are required to investigate the carcass before it is removed from the area. In order to transport pelts from the islands, a hunter and his guide must present the proper permit and documentation, after which the pelt is stamped. A Kodiak bear pelt cannot be transported or sold without this official seal. The community feels very strongly about the wildlife in its area and supports the authorities in their efforts.

Since 1959, when Alaska became a state, the number of recorded bear kills ranged from 77 between 1968 and 1969 to 206 between 1965 and 1966. Between the years of 2000 and 2006, an average of 173 bears was killed each year, of which over 75 percent were male bears. During this time, people protecting themselves or their assets reportedly killed an average of nine bears each year. In recent years, the number of trophy sized Kodiak bears killed, with skull sizes over 28 inches, has risen from 2.5 percent in the 1970’s to nine percent in the 2000’s.

For people that are interested in the Kodiak bear but do not wish to hunt them, there has been a rise in bear viewing in the past twenty years. Bear viewing is conducted in Alaska, and in various areas of the Kodiak archipelago. In 2007, over 1,100 people viewed bears on the Frazer River, the most accessible area on Kodiak Island. Because the number of bear viewers increases about ten percent each year, there are proposed plans to construct more viewing areas in the future. People can view Kodiak bears on charter boats, in the air, from remote lodges in the area, and on guided hiking trips. Kodiak bear viewing is typically thought of as safe for both bears and humans, but if it is not conducted properly, it can cause great damage to the bears. It is easiest for humans to view the bears in areas where food is abundant, especially in those areas where bears congregate. However, if the bears do not go to these feeding grounds because of human presences, they may lose a vital source of nutrients and fat for the winter. This could also affect mothers with cubs.

Kodiak bear hunting does not coincide with bear viewing, and many people consider that merging the two activities is not ethical. Some people assert that it is wrong to allow the bears to be near humans in the summer season, when viewing is allowed, only to be shot in the fall hunting season. However, because bear hunting in this area has occurred for many years and is very lucrative for locals, the Kodiak bear plan has recommended that agencies should find a way to compromise and make bear viewing and bear hunting compatible.

The IUCN does not list subspecies like the Kodiak bear, but the brown bear as a species appears on their list with a conservation status of “Least Concern.” The Kodiak bear cannot be found on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Act.

Image Caption: Kodiak bear in Uyak bay, Kodiak island. Credit: Yathin sk/Wikipedia  (CC BY-SA 3.0)