Brown Bear and Black Bear

Meet two of Alaska's most iconic wildlife species - the brown bear and black bear. Back to animal directory.


Brown Bear

LIFE SPAN: 40 years in captivity.

RANGE: Common in most of Alaska south of the Brooks Range.

NAMES: There are three names for brown bears defined by where they are found in the Alaska: Kodiak brown bears (brown bears only found on Kodiak Island, largest with lots of fish in their diet), brown bears (refers to brown bears along coastal areas) and grizzly bears (refers to smaller, inland bears that eat a wide variety of foods and have a lighter “grizzled” coat appearance).

SIZE: Weights vary with season. Males may weigh 1,400 pounds.

PHYSICAL FEATURES: Brown bears have a prominent shoulder hump (called a roach), long and straight claws and a “dished” face rather than a straight profile like the black bear. Fur color can be black, brown, cinnamon or white.

FOOD: Omnivores. Salmon and high-protein sedge grasses are most often eaten, especially in coastal areas. Access to large salmon runs leads to bears congregating in high numbers to feed in preparation for hibernation. Inland bears have more plants and variety in their diet.

BEHAVIOR: Sows (females) are very protective of their young and will sometimes adopt cubs from another sow. There have been sightings of sows with six or more cubs, or sows with cubs and yearlings. Cubs stay with sows for up to 4 years.

CONSERVATION: Brown bears are common throughout their northern range. Populations have historically included areas of northern and western U.S., however they are found further north now due to increasing development. Populations are low only along the southern range in the Lower 48.

PLANT NOTES: Brown bears eat a variety of plants including Devil’s club, elderberries, cow parsnip, fireweed, willow, horsetail fern and low bush cranberry (all present on zoo grounds). They have been observed eating the root of Devil’s club when wounded, although the medicinal value for bears has not been confirmed.  They will also eat large amounts of horsetail fern, a common ground cover in forests of Alaska.


black bear

LIFE SPAN: 30 years in captivity.

RANGE: Black bears are the most common bear in Alaska except on the Seward Peninsula, north of the Brooks Range and on some islands. They are found in all states but Hawaii.

SIZE: The black bear is the smallest North American bear, with the largest males up to 600 pounds.

PHYSICAL FEATURES: Black bears can be black, brown, cinnamon or white. In rare cases, they may have silver-tipped hairs that look bluish in sunlight. In these cases, they are referred to as Glacier bears and are usually only found in Southeast Alaska. All black bears have a straight nose profile and shorter, curved claws (as compared to brown bears).

FOOD: Omnivores. Their diet includes a great variety of plants and animals. Black bears are opportunistic and will eat whatever is available. They are often drawn to human garbage, which causes them to associate people with food. They are usually destroyed when this occurs, hence “A FED BEAR IS A DEAD BEAR”.

BEHAVIOR: Black bears are solitary for most of year, except during breeding season in June or July. Cubs are born in February or March while females (sows) are in dens. Cubs are blind and hairless. They leave dens in May weighing 5 pounds. They travel with sows during their first year and climb trees very well to escape danger. They go into a deep winter sleep (not true hibernation) in the fall when food is scarce and come out in the spring when temperatures rise.

CONSERVATION: Black bears are common in most of their range. Populations in the Lower 48 states are at a much lower level than northern populations due to increased development and human disturbances. In some areas, their populations are gradually increasing.

PLANT NOTES: Black bears eat a large variety of plants and berries when available. They feed on buds, roots and the inner bark of trees in spring. Plants consumed during summer include Devil’s club, elderberries, dogwood, raspberry, wild rose hips, cow parsnip, fireweed and low bush cranberry (all species present on zoo grounds). Bears are interested in fresh plant growth in the spring and blueberries in late summer and fall.