Alaska; Brown Bears and Salmon

Please consider all images as copyrighted – thank you. Contact me for use… DEClapp

This blog page is not chronologically in sequence with the previous posts or the posts to follow. However, it seemed like a good time to mention the bears of Alaska. There are both Brown and Black bears in our largest state. Alaska is just right for bears; plenty of space, plenty of food, and few people to mess it up. The Black Bear is the smaller of the two species and the one that seems to interact with humans the most. In 2017 there have already been a few bear-caused deaths in Alaska.

The Grizzly Bear is the more inland of the two forms of the Brown Bear. The coastal bears, called Brown Bears, are larger than those that are well inland. The bears in Denali can be called Grizzly Bears and the bears of the Southeast and Kodiak and the extensive and remote shore lines are referred to as Brown Bears. The coastal bears that get to eat salmon for a couple months each summer, as the various species return to spawn, are the largest overall. The fish always pass through the coastal rivers and the bears are always waiting. The inland bears don’t see this migration.

Spots like the one I show are often part of the Alaskan ecotourism trade. You have to go to “Bear School” and then you have to sign the waiver that says if a bear kills you it isn’t the  lodge’s fault. You can even fish in the streams – I didn’t as I thought it wise to not look too competitive to the Brown Bears. But at this location I did have a half mile walk from the place where the float plane dropped me off and where the Bear School was located to the place where the bears were lined up on the rocks. There were bears in the woods walking and sleeping. But all they had on their mind was SALMON.

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The first salmon begin to move into the streams in early June. Bears arrive and wait – meanwhile they eat buds, roots, shoots, and whatever they can find; knowing that the banquet is about to begin. Often Pink Salmon are first along the shore but King Salmon are also early migrants and are in many of the rivers first. The last salmon are still more than two months away from arriving, as the Chum, or Dog Salmon, are the last to return to the fresh water.
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The salmon arrive slowly at first and then in a flood. The runoff from the winter snows makes the river boil and make the salmon’s run difficult. But, they are strong swimmers and can make easy work of the current and the waterfalls that are part of their route home.
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The bears really show up along the river now. The big males reclaim the best spots. The females and especially those females with young from this spring or last spring keep some distance. Males are big, hungry, and a nuisance. Cannibalism is not beyond Brown Bears.

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The salmon and bears finally have their annual meeting. The fish are intent on getting upstream to spawn, the females are bursting with packages of rosy red roe, eggs that are eaten by bears and humans alike. The males are literally falling apart and changing shape as they approach the end of their life. But they are equally intent of getting back to their personal headwaters.
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Sometimes the fish are a bit tricky. One under and one over – maybe the salmon planned this manoever before leaping this low waterfall. The bear is patient as there are thousands of  salmon and more than you could possibly eat pass by each hour.

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Once a fish is caught the bears head to the shore. Not because the meal will be stolen but because they need an operating table to prepare the meal. We humans eat salmon, lots of salmon. We eat the reddish flesh of the fish. At this time of year the bears are easily sated and are rather choosy about what they will bother to eat. They head to shore to assess the catch and plan the dinner.

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Again, this is a bit seasonal, they eat only what they consider to be the choicest parts in this time of plenty. If you had a hundred butchered cows available to you, you might live only on the filet mignon. Well, at this time of year the bears eat the roe, the fatty skin, and the brain. It is quite odd to us humans to watch them skin a salmon and eat the skin. Then they gut the salmon and eat the roe from the females. A quick bite on the head gets those goodies and the rich red meat is allowed to float downstream. The Glaucous-winged Gulls are quite happy with that arrangement.
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There is an earlier Alaska blog page that shows a mink dragging half a salmon carcass under some tree roots. The mink will eat what it can and the rest will fertilize the woods. Tons and tons of half-eaten fish and tons and tons of bear droppings* assume the role of soil in these woodlands which are perched on rocky substrate with little real soil.                                 *Answering an age old question about bears toilet use.
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Spring migration is a time to eat, sleep, and then eat again. After a while the bears are pretty zombied-out. It is the best time of year for these Brown Bears and they are very good at taking advantage of it.
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Meanwhile, over on the sidelines Momma Bear explains to the little ones about the dangers of taking food from the big boys. Often the females and yearlings are downstream with the gulls looking for leftovers rather than trying to get a place in the stream at a falls where the fish pass in large numbers. Better take the safe alternative when the other choice is life-threatening.

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