Brown Bear or Grizzly Bear?
Brown and grizzly are common names for the same species; the difference between the two is geographic location, which influences diet, size, and behavior. Those that live in coastal areas are called brown bears, while typically inland bears that have limited or no access to marine-derived food resources are called grizzlies. Both have the distinctive large shoulder hump, long curved claws, and a wide head with a concave profile, often described as "dish-faced." In Lake Clark, both coastal and inland bears are of the subspecies Ursus arctos horribilis, and generally we refer to them all as brown bears, although either term is acceptable.
Lake Clark's Coastal Brown Bears
Estuaries, where rivers meet the sea along the park’s Cook Inlet coast, are the urban centers of the bear world. Food is plentiful here from early spring until the bears return to their dens in the fall. Sedges that are high in protein and other edible plants grow in salt marshes. Tidal flats brimming with clams lay just a few yards away. Flowing through it all are rivers filled with salmon that return each summer to spawn and die further upstream. Whales and other marine carcasses occasionally wash ashore. Berries grow on the nearby hillsides. Everything a bear needs to eat is in one place.
Bears gather in these estuaries in large numbers to eat and mate. Park biologists have counted as many as 219 brown bears within a 54 square mile area on the coast in recent years. There are few other places in the world where you can find as many bears living in such a small area. This is possible because they are more tolerant of the presence of each-other, of other wildlife, and often of people than they are in places where there is less food. In order to avoid most conflict, these naturally solitary animals establish a fluid hierarchy when gathered together. Through the use of vocalizations, scent, and body posturing weaker, less dominant bears yield space, breeding rights, and optimum feeding locations to stronger, more dominant individuals with little injury to each-other.
The energy-rich diet of Lake Clark's coastal brown bears allows the largest males to reach weights exceeding 1,000 pounds by the time they enter the den to hibernate. Most adult males typically weigh 600-900 pounds by mid-summer, while females average 1/3 less in weight. This is carried on a frame 3-5 feet tall at the shoulder and 7-10 feet in length.
Lake Clark's rich coastal habitats are wild places without roads, towns, campgrounds, or large populations of people adjacent to them. Yet, it only takes a short 30 minute flight from communities on the Kenai Peninsula to reach the park's coast. Bears in Chinitna Bay and Silver Salmon Creek see people nearly every day they are not in hibernation, and the people behave in a very predictable manner; landing, walking, fishing, and eating in the same places day after day. Bears here do not have a history of acquiring food from people, nor nor are they hunted or injured by people, which makes us about as interesting as a raven or a gull from their point of view. This combination of plentiful food that allows for a high population of tolerant bears living close but not to close to human communities creates the perfect bear viewing opportunity that you will find in few other places in the world. Knowledgeable guides will ensure visitors have a safe and memorable bear viewing experience in Lake Clark.