Traveling Safely in Bear Country
Glacier Bay Bear Management Plan
Bear Habitat and Campsite Risk Assessment Project
Where Are the Bears?
Although it is not always a given that a visitor will see a bear in Glacier Bay even on a multi-day camping trip, there are few beaches on the bay’s 1,100 miles of coastline where sign of bear activity is not visible. Bears thrive in a variety of habitats, and their strategy for survival is to constantly explore their surroundings for new food sources. Most of the islands in the bay are visited routinely by bears, and one can expect to find them almost anywhere. While bears do not congregate in the large numbers associated with some of the more salmon-rich bear viewing areas in Alaska, they are nevertheless a thrilling sight when spotted on their mostly solitary rambles along Glacier Bay’s beaches.
Bears often travel long distances along the shorelines of Glacier bay
Black bears normally weigh up to 250 pounds, occasionally up to as much as 600 pounds. They range in color from black to brown or "cinnamon" and rarely to silver-blue (known as "glacier bears"). Black bears can be identified by their “roman nose” facial profile, flat upper back, and short curved claws. Black bears tend to live in forested areas, although they can be found anywhere from the beach to the alpine.
For more information on black bears in Alaska, visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Notebook Series black bear page.
Brown bear is another name for grizzly bear and is used to differentiate the coastal residents from the interior-dwelling grizzly. Brown bears normally weigh up to 900 pounds, occasionally up to as much as 1,400 pounds, and range in color from almost black to light blond. Brown bears can be identified by their distinct shoulder hump, "dish-shaped" face, and long claws. Brown bears tend to dwell in open terrain, but can be found in the dense forest as well.
For more information on brown bears in Alaska, visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Notebook Series brown bear page.
Distribution of Bears in Glacier Bay
In Glacier Bay, black bears tend to inhabit the southern forested areas of the bay, while brown bears are more often seen in the northern, more recently glaciated zone. However, there is a large area of overlap between the two species in the mid-bay, and occasionally a black bear is sighted near the glaciers or a brown bear passes through Gustavus or Bartlett Cove.
Black bear (black dots) and brown bear (brown dots) sightings in Glacier Bay over the last 10 years.
USGS Graphic by Tom Smith
What Do Bears Eat?
Both black and brown bears are omnivores and eat a wide variety of plant and animal foods in Glacier Bay. Bears do not defend a specific territory like some other large predators, and they tend to roam widely in search of food, the males more so than the females. However, bears will often defend a limited food resource, especially a carcass, from encroachment by other bears or humans.
Emerging vegetation in the spring is very important for bears, and they are often seen grazing on shoreline grasses, sedges, and intertidal plants. Bears eat wild celery (Angelica spp.), cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) and other beach and meadow plants throughout the spring and summer, and feast on the wide variety of berries that ripen in the late summer and fall. Brown bears use their long claws to dig up plants such as sweet-vetch (Hedyserum alpinum) and Oxytropis spp. roots, and both brown and black bears forage on ground cone (Bochnakia rossica) which is commonly found associated with alder thickets.
For a complete list of plants that are potential food for bears in Glacier Bay, click here.
When the tide is low, bears utilize Glacier Bay’s extensive intertidal zone for foraging. Both black and brown bears can be seen scraping barnacles off of rocks and munching mussels. Occasionally brown bears are observed turning over large rocks and pouncing on the pricklebacks and gunnels (small eel-like fishes) that live underneath.
Salmon are very important to bears in the late summer and fall. There are several large well-established salmon streams in the southern part of the bay and a few in the northern bay as well. As the glaciers retreat and the streams mature, salmon are slowly beginning to colonize more and more streams in the northern part of the bay. While some new salmon streams still show relatively light use by bears, these food sources will likely continue to grow and will possibly support expanded bear populations in the future.
Bears eat many other animals when they get the opportunity, including such items as bumblebees, sand fleas, bird eggs, birds, voles, marine mammal carcasses stranded by the tide, and occasionally even other bears. Moose calf hooves have been found in bear scat in the lower bay, and brown bears in the upper bay have been seen patrolling spring avalanche slopes probably in search of winter mountain goat casualties.
Bears usually leave ample evidence after passing through an area, including tracks, feces or "scat," grazed plants, trails, rubbed trees, digs, and day beds. Bear scat often contains identifiable remnants of the bear’s last supper such as grass, berries, seeds, fish bones, or hair
Bear trails may consist of a single solid trail, or sets of individual footprints that often look sunken or pressed into the ground. These footprints are called a “mark trail,” and are often formed purposefully by a bear urinating while it walks, slowly grinding its feet and the urine into the ground. Mark trails are believed to be a way that a bear announces his or her presence to other bears, which may be especially useful during breeding season.
Mark trails often lead directly to a tree that bears rub and scratch on, called a “rub tree." Rub trees usually have a somewhat mangled appearance and may have bits and clumps of bear hair stuck in their bark.
Another telltale sign of bear use of an area is the presence of day beds. Day beds are dug-out areas that may be used day or night by resting bears. A day bed may be under a big spruce tree on a knoll or on a gravel bank on the beach.
Day beds are usually located so the bear has a good view of the surrounding area, and they often are surrounded by several scats that the resting bear left. The presence of many day beds in close proximity can be a sign that a rich food source is nearby, such as a sedge meadow or salmon stream. Day beds are sometimes referred to as “belly holes” because bears dig them to accommodate their girth – the bigger the belly, the bigger the hole!
The coastline of Glacier Bay is an extremely well-traveled wildlife corridor. Bears, like people, tend to walk along the easiest travel routes along the beach, up stream beds and river valleys, and through natural breaks in the brush. Bears tend to walk on trails that may be used by moose and other animals as well. Bears in Glacier Bay seem able to swim as well as they can walk and have been sighted over a mile from land while crossing from one shore to another.