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Fauna Series No. 3







Faunal Position

Life Zones







Fauna of the National Parks — No. 3
Birds and Mammals of Mount McKinley National Park
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Euarctos americanus americanus [PALLAS]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—The robust form, the short stout legs, the plantigrade feet and the large humanlike tracks that the black bear leaves—these characters are known to nearly every national parks' visitor. In the western part of the United States the brown or cinnamon phase of this animal is about as numerous as the regulation black phase, but in the McKinley region all the black bears are believed to be black. The weight varies greatly according to the season and the food supply. An average adult male weighs from 250 to 350 pounds. Male bears are considerably larger than the females, but it is rare under natural conditions in the wilds, without regard for the overfed park or "zoo" specimens, for black bears to weigh as much as 500 pounds. Size, large; total length, 5 6 feet; tail, 3-4 inches; hind foot, 7-10 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—Euarctos americanus americanus is so well known that further description is not required.

DISTRIBUTION.—Black bears were originally found throughout the wooded or timbered sections of North America. In the McKinley region they are found along the larger streams and in the lower country just north of the park. Now and then a black bear strays into the lower wooded areas of the park but the range of this species lies below that of the grizzly.

Grizzly bears cannot climb trees; black bears can if they are not too fat. It is believed that this ability or lack of ability to climb trees is an important factor in the distribution of these two animals in the McKinley region.

HABITS.—The black bear is notoriously fond of berries. On August 8, 1932, I found unmistakable bear droppings near a wooded section not far from Wonder Lake where blueberries grew abundantly. Farther along the trail, claw marks on spruce trees proved that it was a black bear.

The meat of a young berry-fed bear is excellent. We enjoyed a black bear roast which was provided by Fannie Quigley from an area just outside the park in the Kantishna region.

Black bears constitute not more than about 1 percent of the bear population in Mount McKinley National Park.

Ursus kluane kluane [MERRIAM]

Ursus toklat [MERRIAM]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—These two grizzlies are the largest carnivorous mammals found in the Mount McKinley National Park.1 The outstanding characters of these two grizzly bears, which are so similar in general appearance that it is very doubtful if even an expert could tell living specimens apart in the field, are the robust frame, massive legs, and the hump over the shoulders; the long silver-tipped over-hairs of the animal's coat, and the long, smooth, light-colored, slightly curved claws.

There has been so much discussion regarding the size of the Alaskan bears that actual measurements are given herewith of Toklat grizzly bears which were killed and measured by the late Charles Sheldon who spent two seasons hunting in the Mount McKinley region before it was set aside as a national park. The first of these was an old female bear killed at the forks of the Toklat on May 28, 1908. This bear was carefully measured twice on level ground by Sheldon (1930, p. 376). The results were as follows: Length, 5 feet 4 inches; tail, 5-1/4 inches additional; height, 37 inches; hind foot with claws, 10-1/4 inches. On May 12, 1908, Sheldon shot a male grizzly which be states was the largest bear that he ever killed in the interior of Alaska (1930, p. 351). On rough ground this bear measured as follows: Length, 5 feet 9-1/2 inches; tail, 5 inches; sole of hind foot with claws, 12 inches.

Regarding the size of grizzly tracks Sheldon states (1930, p. 365): "I made it a practice to measure carefully and repeatedly the tracks of bears but only on hard surfaces where the impressions were clearly defined. . . . The hind foot of the largest measured 10-1/2 inches, the claw punctures extending an inch beyond; the width of the paw, 6 inches."

IDENTIFICATION.—The large size, the hump over the shoulders, the "dished" face, light color, and long, nearly straight claws are all field characters that may be used to distinguish grizzlies from black bears when the living animals are encountered.

Skulls of grizzlies may be distinguished from those of black bears by their larger size and by the size of the back upper molar tooth. After examining several hundred bear skulls in the University of California Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and in the United States National Museum I have yet to find an adult grizzly skull in which this back upper molar tooth measured less than 1-1/4 inches in length. None of the black bear skulls which I examined had a back upper molar that exceeded this measurement.

DISTRIBUTION.—The habitat of the Toklat grizzly, according to Merriam (N. A. Fauna, 1918, no. 41, p. 95) is "restricted to Alaska Range." The habitat of the Kluane grizzly is given by the same authority as "Southwest corner of Yukon Territory east of the St. Elias Range, extending north westerly in Alaska to Mount McKinley region (head of Toklat)" . . . Charles Sheldon killed a bear of this species at the head of Toklat River.

Grizzly bears are found throughout the park on the north side of the main Alaskan Range but I found that in summer they were most numerous above timber line in the higher passes: at the head of Savage River, Cathedral Mountain, Sable Pass, and on the headwaters of the East Fork of the Toklat River.

In the park area during the summer grizzly bears have been most frequently found where the ground squirrels were numerous.

HABITS.—Commenting on the color of the Toklat grizzly bears killed by Sheldon, Osgood (1907, p. 63) says, "They show much variation in color, especially one litter of cubs, one of which is very pale, and another very dark, and the third almost exactly intermediate." Sheldon (1930, p. 72), in commenting on color says that in a litter of three cubs, one male "was pale buff like the mother. A second male was silver-tipped brown; the third, a female, was exactly intermediate in color." Again Sheldon (1930, p. 339), referring to a mother and cub, says: "The pelage of both was long and full, in perfect condition, the color light buffy on the head and body, dark brown on the belly, legs, and tail." Sheldon also states (1930, p. 378): "It seemed clear that while bears vary much in color when they hibernate in the fall, they all emerge from the winter dens in coats of uniform color." My observations do not agree with this statement.

There is a much greater amount of summer bleaching of pelage in the grizzly bears of the McKinley region than there is in the grizzly bears of the Yellowstone where the total number of hours of sunlight in summer is less. It is also true that certain old grizzly bears in the McKinley region are a light cream color when they emerge from their winter dens while other adults are dark-colored (brown) when they emerge and they remain dark-colored throughout the summer. As an example, on May 29, 1932, near park headquarters, a female bear that was not many days out of her winter den was observed by me at close range. She was very light-colored. In fact, she was as light-colored as any of the 26 grizzly bears that I saw and photographed in 1 day—September 1929—in Yellowstone National Park. Again on June 12, 1932, at Double Mountain in Mount McKinley Park I found a large old male grizzly that was cream-colored. However, contrasted with this, on July 14, 1932, on the Teklanika River near Sheldon's 1906 camp I watched an old mother grizzly with three dark cubs. They were all dark brown, almost black. This mother bear was seen at intervals all summer both by the road crew working at Sable Pass and by me. She remained dark-colored throughout the summer.

In our experience the color of the McKinley Park grizzly varies greatly with individuals; the young animals are darker than the old ones; certain individuals are buffy or cream-colored when they come out of their winter dens, while other individuals of this species are dark-colored when they emerge and they remain dark-colored all summer until and after the annual fall molt.

When the grizzlies first emerge from hibernation, the mountains and foothills are still heavily mantled with snow (fig. 40). However, instead of going down to the lowland which by then is free from snow the bears strike out for the still snow-clad foothills—particularly for the rougher foothills where the Alaska mountain sheep spend the winter. Although it would seem as if they were going away from an available food supply. rather than toward it, they appear to know where to look for the frozen carcasses of mountain sheep that have been killed by avalanches or that have died during the winter through accident or disease.

snow-covered mountain range
Figure 40.—The range of the grizzlies is still covered with snow for several weeks after the bears come out of hibernation in the spring.
Photograph taken May 29, 1932, head of Jenny Creek. W. L. D. No. 2773.

Grizzly bears because of their great weight leave deep tracks (fig. 41) that form broad trails through the snow. Aided by their strength and strong claws these bears cross steep, dangerous snowslides that would stop a man. On June 10, 1932, I watched two grizzlies near Sable Pass go up a steep snowbank with the greatest ease (fig. 42). When first discovered these two bears were feeding on the remains of a winter-killed Alaska mountain sheep. I found grizzlies eating both dead caribou and mountain sheep, but a careful examination showed that the carcasses were of old, winter-killed animals. It is entirely likely that at times grizzlies do kill young caribou, but although we have watched them with binoculars, and followed them about for many hours, we have never yet seen grizzlies make any attempt to capture or to kill either a caribou or a mountain sheep. The inexperienced person discovering a grizzly eating a caribou or mountain sheep would be likely to jump at the conclusion that the animal being eaten had been killed by the bear which in many known cases is not the fact.

grizzly bear tracks in snow
Figure 41.—Tracks of a grizzly leading across a snowfield.
Photograph taken June 8, 1932, Sable Pass. W. L. D. No. 2978.

Figure 42.—A grizzly climbing a steep snow bank.
Photograph taken June 9, 1932, Igloo Creek. W. L. D. No. 2637.

When hunting for dead sheep and caribou, a grizzly depends upon its acute sense of smell rather than upon its eyesight which is rather poor. Sheldon (1930, p. 66) observed a grizzly that located a ram which he had shot. He describes her actions as follows: "She kept throwing up her nose to sniff the air, and finally seemed to catch a scent, for she started walking rapidly across the rocky slope, her head held high, continually sniffing, guiding her course by scent directly toward the canyon where I had killed the * * * rams." Reaching the dead sheep, "She began to paw out the rocks near the carcass, scooping out a deep hollow, tumbling big rocks down the canyon and moving others to one side, apparently with no effort at all. Then, seizing the carcass with her jaws, she dragged it into the hollow and pawed the rocks all around it, completely covering it, so that nothing but a mound of broken rock was visible." One of the cubs of this bear scratched the rocks aside and started to eat the sheep, but the mother bear pawed the rocks into place again. Then she went over the edge of the canyon only to return to its edge 14 times in less than half an hour to gaze below, apparently to assure herself that her stored food supply was undisturbed.

I had a similar experience to Sheldon's with two grizzly bears in the same region in 1932. On the night of June 13, two grizzlies raided the meathouse of the East Fork road camp and carried off a quarter of beef. This was the first time that grizzlies had raided any road camp in McKinley Park. People were in camp at the time. The cook was asleep in a tent beside the meat-house—previously he had driven these same bears away by a vigorous barrage of empty tin cans. The two bears having stolen the quarter of beef ate a portion of it and, by the time I arrived, had dug a hole and buried the remaining portion on a snow-covered ridge a short distance away. One of the bears went off to sleep, while the other remained near the cached meat (fig. 43). By detouring around to one side and vigorously rattling a small tin can filled with rocks I was able to waken and drive away the sleeping grizzly. Upon seeing his partner leaving, the other grizzly also left. I drove the two bears a mile away from the camp but they were both back again just 2 minutes after I returned.

Figure 43.—The dark grizzly remained near his meat cache while his mate slept nearby. Freshly fallen snow was 4 inches deep.
Photograph taken June 14, 1932, East Fork. W. L. D. No. 2642.

In our experience, grizzly bears appear to have a highly developed sense of property rights. Woe unto any animal that is caught robbing or disturbing a grizzly's cache! Black bears having been caught robbing a grizzly's store of food have been torn into small pieces. A sure way of getting into trouble is for anyone to try to drive a grizzly away from his kill. It is our opinion that many of the so-called unprovoked attacks by grizzlies have taken place because the bear feared that he was going to be robbed.

Mice are caught in considerable numbers by grizzlies. Sheldon reports (1930, p. 170) that on October 9,1907, after a recent snowfall, mice—which at that time were exceedingly abundant—had made tunnels under the snow. Evidently scenting a mouse in a tunnel the bear would plunge its nose into the snow, often ploughing through as much as 10 feet, until the mouse ran down its hole. Then the bear would dig it out and catch it with its paw. Grizzlies often turn over large flat rocks to capture mice and insects living under them. Marmots that have been unwise enough to make their burrows outside of the protection of boulders are at times dug out and captured by grizzlies.

However, the real staff of life of the grizzly is the ground squirrel. During the long summer days the grizzlies spend many hours in digging out these nutritious rodents. Most of the digging for squirrels takes place on the higher ridges above timber line where, because of the ground being frozen below the surface, the squirrel burrows are relatively shallow and hence easily dug out. In two instances when grizzlies were watched hunting squirrels, the squirrels were dug out in 20 and 30 minutes respectively. Sheldon (1930, p. 63) reports this operation as follows: "I watched the bear, which was sitting on its hind quarters actively at work, throwing out the dirt vigorously in all directions." This bear dug with either front paw, "with mouth open and tongue hanging out, it panted like a good-natured dog."

On July 2, 1926, at Sable Pass I watched a very large female bear and her two cubs for several hours. They were feeding along the hillside, traveling high above timber line and keeping to the upper edge of the green meadows which lay just below the jutting cliffs. The mother bear, which was of a rich brownish color, walked along sedately as though she had never had a care in the world; the cubs trailed in her wake at random. They spent a great deal of time and energy chasing each other back and forth, and up and down the hillside. These two cubs stood about 16 or 18 inches high at the shoulders and were much darker in color than their mother. At a distance they appeared to be almost black. However, with the binoculars we could see a brownish streak along the center of the back and across the shoulders. While we continued to watch with the binoculars, the two cubs stopped chasing each other and began to roll over and over sideways, just like a barrel. They rolled down the smooth, steep, grassy slope clear to the bottom, a distance of 200 feet. Their aim seemed to be to determine which one could roll the farthest. Upon reaching the bottom of the slope they turned around and raced back up the hill, apparently to see which one could reach the mother bear first.

While the cubs were thus playing and working off their surplus energy the mother bear traveled slowly along the hillside stopping at intervals to sniff at the entrances of numerous ground-squirrel burrows. Ordinarily one sniff was all that she took. It seemed to be sufficient to inform her whether or not the animal was in its burrow. At last she found a squirrel in his den. This den was located on a steep hillside at the base of an outcropping of shale rock. The old bear dug a little at the entrance of the ground-squirrel's burrow. Then she stopped and went around looking carefully for other burrows or back door entrances through which the squirrel might escape, and locating two such burrows she dug into them a little way finally plugging them up with earth. She then returned to the main entrance of the burrow and resumed her digging there. By this time the two cubs, realizing that lunch was in preparation, stopped their romping and came over to assist their mother. It was evidently an old game to them. One cub posted himself at the top of a rock pile to watch operations. The other cub helped by taking turns with the digging. The little bear could get into a much smaller hole than the mother was able to manage. Finding that a large slab of rock which barred the way was firmly embedded in solid rock, the mother bear stood up on her hind legs and took hold of it with her front paws. She pulled backward and pushed on it lustily several times until she finally broke it. Then she threw the dislodged portion of it down the hill. After that she resumed her digging; the cubs looked on expectantly. At length she paused and reaching into the hole as far as she could she took the squirrel out in her mouth and carried it over to a patch of short green grass. There she gave the squirrel two or three savage bites and while we waited in eager expectation for her to divide it between the cubs, she suddenly swallowed it whole. The two cubs were obviously disappointed. Then the three bears went across to a rock slide, the mother bear leading and the two cubs tagging along behind her. From the rock slide they went on to another green meadow where they stopped and ate green vegetation. Finally they all went around the shoulder of the mountain and I lost sight of them. The average distance traveled by this family of bears while foraging was about 1 mile per hour.

On June 9, 1932, at Igloo Creek, I spent an entire morning watching and photographing a bear at a distance of 30 to 40 feet (fig. 44). This bear was industriously digging up and eating the succulent roots of the Anemone parviflora (fig. 45) which were growing in scattered clumps in the sandy soil along the stream that ran through an open spruce forest. When I first approached the bear in an opening it ceased feeding and withdrew to the deeper woods. But when I stood motionless in the open, it soon returned and began to claw out more of the Anemone roots, using first the right and then the left front paw, alternately. At times this bear used its nose to root out the plants after the sandy soil had been well clawed up. It seemed probable that its sense of smell had led it to the choice bits that would otherwise have been lost.

Figure 44.—A large grizzly or possibly tundra brown bear photographed at a distance of 40 feet while the animal was digging and eating "anemone" roots. The photographer was in plain sight and made no attempt to conceal himself.
Photograph taken June 9, 1932, Igloo Creek. W. L. D. No. 2408.

wind flower
Figure 45.—The succulent roots of the wind flower (anemone parviflora), the first flower of spring, are dug up and eaten by grizzlies in early spring.
Photograph taken June 13, 1926, Savage River. M. V. Z. No. 4989.

When I approached to within 25 feet of the bear, the animal ceased feeding and gave a warning cough or grunt. Once it made a pretense as if it were going to rush in my direction. I interpreted this behavior of the bear as its way of warning me to keep at a safe distance and I took the hint. As soon as I withdrew a few feet the bear resumed its feeding. It continued to feed all morning. The large bulk of the bear and the small size of the roots and stems that formed its food quota made hours of food gathering necessary each day.

Sheldon examined the stomach contents of grizzly bears that he had killed in the Mount McKinley region. The following table gives in a condensed form the results of his examinations.

Stomach contents of Toklat grizzly bears examined by Charles Sheldon

Locality Sex Date Stomach contents
ToklatFemale May 5, 1908 Roots of pea vine, also a few mice.
   DoMale May 12, 1908 Roots of pea vine, also one ground squirrel.
West branch ToklatFemale May 14, 1908 Roots of pea vine, also two mice.
Teklanika   do Aug. 22, 1906 Ground squirrels and round worms.
   Do    do Aug. 24, 1906 Meat and a few pieces of grass—no sign of blueberries, which were abundant in that vicinity.

As previously stated, although I followed grizzlies about for hours where Alaska mountain sheep were numerous, I have never seen the bears make any attempt to capture the sheep. Sheldon had a similar opportunity to make these same deductions on September 1, 1906, on the Toklat. He watched a grizzly approach and pass within 75 feet of five rams that were feeding in the open. The sheep did not run away and the bear gave them hardly more than a passing glance.

While black bears are notoriously fond of berries the grizzly does not appear to eat them to any great extent. In 1932, I found excellent blueberries growing abundantly in the region. However, only a very small proportion of the bear droppings which I examined showed that berries had been eaten. Sheldon (1930, p. 117) in commenting on this states, "It is perfectly clear that many of the bears of this region do not go for the salmon that ascend the rivers, nor do they feed much, if at all, on berries."

Grizzly bears have playful moods. On June 8, 1932, after the family laundry had been done and hung up to dry, my wife and I went up to Sable Pass to look for a pair of young grizzlies that had been seen there. Our quest was unsuccessful, but upon returning to camp at 8:30 p. m. that evening we found all of our recently washed clothes torn off the line. A hasty glance around revealed the grizzly (fig. 46) which, having finished the clothes, was calmly waiting further adventure.

Figure 46.—While we were absent this grizzly came into camp and broke into our cabin.
Photograph taken June 8, 1932, Igloo Creek. W. L. D. No. 2634.

At another time two cubs were watched as they rolled over and over down a steep, grassy slope. The game appeared to be to see which could roll the farthest. Grown grizzlies are fond of sleeping on or sliding down steep snowslides. Twice I found grizzly bears asleep in the snow after having eaten heavily. The first instance was on June 9 at Igloo Creek. The bears were on a snowbank high up on a mountain side. After sleeping curled up in the snow for half an hour the two bears began to play. They seemed to be vying with each other to see which one could toboggan the farthest down the snowslide on its stomach with its front and hind legs extended.

On June 12, 1932, at 9 o'clock in the morning I stalked a large cream-colored grizzly that had gone fast asleep in the sun on a steep but sheltered mountain side near Double Mountain. He was curled up on his side like a house cat and because of a favorable wind I was able to crawl down to within a few yards of him. I got so close to him that I could have tossed a pebble and hit the animal. However, not knowing whether Ursus had a cache nearby nor just how the bear might take a sudden awakening, I decided it was best to let a "sleeping dog lie." So I crawled back and left the grizzly to sleep in peace.

There is always a possibility of danger if one comes suddenly upon a mother bear with small cubs, or if one inadvertently tries to drive a grizzly away from its cached food. However, I tramped for days through portions of the park where the grizzly bears were most numerous and while I always kept a good lookout ahead for bears, I gave them a wide berth and I never had any real trouble with them—although I have given them considerable provocation by following them and photographing them. However, it is not safe to follow all grizzly bears, and the park visitor is strongly advised not to approach any of them closely or to molest them in any way.

Sheldon says, regarding grizzly bears (1930, p. 375), "When one gets close to a bear and realizes its activity and power, it is difficult to restrain the feeling of danger" and he also says (1930, p. 63), "The stalking of no other animal on the American continent is so exciting as the close approach to a grizzly bear. Its activity is astonishing; it is constantly on the move, and may suddenly turn and go in any direction. And when very close, one's nerves are at high tension, for in any small depression the hunter eagerly watching may suddenly meet the bear face to face."

1 The writer observed for several hours and photographed what he feels certain was a tundra brown bear, at Igloo Creek, Jane 9, 1932 (Fig. 44). The writer has had field experience with the tundra brown bear just outside of Mount McKinley National Park and believes that, eventually, its existence within the park will he proved.

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