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Grizzly Bear (Barren Ground)

Estimated reading time: 8 min

The pursuit of North America’s big game animals is always exciting. It appeals to the “hunter/gatherer” nature in each of us whose upbringing turned on the genetic switch to hunt. We seek the rush of adrenaline and other brain chemicals that the fight or flight response triggers in us as human animals.

Though the rush is there in any kind of hunting, it’s undeniably heightened when we set out to hunt animals that can hunt us back or at the very least stand their ground. In North America, that means the predators we classify as “big bear.” That’s grizzly bear, brown bear, and polar bear. Because grizzly and brown bear are actually one in the same species, we will focus on hunting them, for now, and elsewhere devote a dedicated profile to hunting polar bears.

In North America, Eurasia, and Siberia where grizzly/brown bear are hunted, there is no other hunting that provides the same skin prickling excitement of a big bear encounter. Even a rookie in big bear country somehow carries the innate instinct of “feeling” when a grizzly is close at hand. Fresh tracks or scat send a shiver down one’s spine.

Outfitters are essential to hunting brown and grizzly bear in North America, Europe and Asia. For any non-resident bear hunter the logistics and legalities, not to mention safety, of a big bear hunt cannot be conducted without the services of an experienced, trustworthy, highly rated outfitter.

Grizzly & Brown Bear Facts

In North America there have long been separate designations for grizzly bear and brown bear. For decades, both hunters and biologists insisted they were different species, however, it is now understood that taxonomically, grizzly bear and brown bear are the same species with the overall scientific name Ursus arctos.

There’s no denying the North American bears traditionally classified as “Kodiak brown bear” are larger in both body size and skull measurements than those classified as “grizzly” bear. The difference is believed, now, to be primarily caused by the coastal region brown bear’s access to a high-protein diet of salmon where grizzlies on the inland side of the coastal mountain ranges eat far more flora than fauna.

Coastal and island brown bear boars commonly grow to 1250 pounds or more in weight and can weigh as much as 1500 pounds just before retiring to the den for hibernation. Inland grizzlies seldom exceed 800 pounds. Sows are significantly smaller and lighter weight than boars in all subspecies. Although the term “Kodiak bear” is commonly applied to all coastal Alaska brown bears, the true Kodiak subspecies only occurs on the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago (Kodiak, Afognak, Shuyak, Raspberry, Uganik, Sitkalidak, and adjacent islands).

In Europe and Asia, they are generically called “brown bear” though the bears of Kamchatka Russia are closely linked to the Kodiak brown bear while the European and eastern Asia brown bears are more grizzly-like in their characteristics. They are found in much of Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia, the Balkans, Sweden, and Finland. As in North America, size and characteristics of the brown bear in Europe and Asia vary by region and by the food sources to which they have access.

For Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young recognition of big bear in North America, the distinction between species is purely geographic. Roughly, it’s on a line extending 75 miles inland from the coast of Alaska, though a more precise demarcation qualifies bears for their books. Bears taken north and east of this line are considered grizzlies, bears taken west and south of it are considered Alaska brown bear. Safari Club International (SCI) classifies brown bears taken in Alaska Game Management Units 1-10 and 14-18 as Alaska brown bears. These units encompass the area from the saltwater coast to the first ridge of inland mountains. They classify all other brown bears from Alaska as grizzly bears. This boundary effectively separates the larger, salmon-eating, short-hibernating coastal bears from the smaller interior bears.

Outside of North America, SCI also recognizes a Eurasian Brown Bear category encompassing those bears inhabiting Eastern Europe, Russia, and northwestern Asia; a Kamchatka Brown Bear category for those bears of the coastal regions of far eastern Siberia; an Amur Brown Bear category for bear from Russian Maritime Territory and the Ussuri/Amur river region south of the Stanovoy Range; Northeastern Heilongjiang, China and Hokkaido, Japan; and a Siberian Brown Bear category including bears from East of the Yenisey River in most of Siberia (except for the habitat of the Kamchatka and Amur brown bears), also northern Mongolia, far northern Xinjiang, and extreme eastern Kazakhstan.

All these categories and the expansive range they cover reveal overall brown bears inhabit territory spanning the northern hemisphere nearly around the globe.

Though specific habits and primary food sources vary by region, brown bears of all subspecies and locales can be considered the ultimate omnivores. They will eat nearly anything they can find. Stories of them trying to eat about anything are rampant. However, in total, the omnivorous diet averages nearly 90 percent vegetation and only 10 percent meat.

Only in the rarest of cases will brown bear actually “hunt” man as food. Most confrontational encounters with brown bear are the result of a sow protecting young, boars protecting territory or bears perceiving a threat to food they’ve claimed as their own. Whether the food is a kill they’ve made themselves, something they’ve stolen from another bear or predator, or a winter kill they have scavenged, brown bear will often cache the uneaten portion of a carcass covering it with leaves, branches and other duff. They will stay in the immediate vicinity to protect the cache, but often in cover, hidden from sight. Human confrontations often take place when a hunter, hiker, etc. stumbles upon the site unaware of the presence of the bear.

Depending on subspecies, brown bear range from an average size of less than 200 pounds live weight to up to 1500 pounds for coastal bear fattened for hibernation. They stand from three feet to five feet or more at the shoulder when down on all fours.  Color of coats can appear from nearly black on some subspecies to light blonde, yellow, or almost white on some tundra grizzlies. The name “grizzly” itself is derived from the tendency of the brown bear’s coat to be dark underneath and lighter on the tips  — as in “grizzled.”

Mating season for brown bears is late spring to early summer. While fertilization occurs during this time, the egg does not attach to the uterine wall until winter hibernation, and then only if the sow has put on sufficient weight and fat to support the cub(s). If she gives birth, it is while she is in hibernation. The average litter is one to four cubs. At birth the cubs are tiny and helpless, but develop in the winter den with the sow. They will emerge from the den with her in the spring fully furred and weighing up to 20 pounds.

Cubs remain with the sow for two to four years during which time she must protect them from a host of predators including boar brown bear. Boars will kill cubs for food and to bring the sow into cycle for mating.

Length of hibernation varies by subspecies and location as well.  In fact, some older coastal brown bear boars are suspected to hibernate very little. Some biologists believe overall durations of bear hibernations are becoming shorter due to climatic changes toward shortened, less severe winters.

Trophy sizes of bears for the record books are judged by skull measurements. While field judging the size of a bear is among the most difficult hunting skills to develop, the actual measurements are the simplest. Using a caliper, measurements are taken of the greatest length without the lower jaw and the greatest width of the skinned, properly dried skull. Measurements are taken to the nearest 16th of an inch and added together to determine the score for the bear.

Grizzly & Brown Bear Hunting

In North America, most brown and grizzly bear hunting is done in Alaska, though they are also hunted in Canada’s Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and British Columbia. Nonresident hunting opportunities for brown bear in Eastern Europe, Russia and Siberia are expanding as experienced, entrepreneurial outfitters open up the hunting in these regions.

Grizzly and brown bear in North American are hunted nearly exclusively through some form of spot and stalk hunting in both spring and fall seasons. In the spring, it usually involves climbing to higher elevations at which bears den for the winter and looking for signs of boars leaving hibernation, such as tracks across glaciers and snowfields. The primary target for hunting is to take a large boar, and they usually exit their winter dens earlier than sows and cubs.

In the fall, when coastal bear are gathered along the shorelines and rivers to fatten on the salmon runs before going to the den, boat-based spotting works well. Some outfitters offer camps based on large boats off-shore and then send out hunters with guides in smaller boats to glass the shorelines and river mouths for feeding bear. When a big bear is spotted, they will try to beach in the vicinity and make a stalk for a closer look and, perhaps, a shot.

Boats or rafts are also used to hunt bear along rivers leading to the coast. The outfitter will drop hunters and guides well upstream from the ocean with a raft, and the hunters will float to a rendezvous point downstream, usually at the river’s mouth. They will make camps along the way on sandbars and beaches and hunt bear they encounter enroute during the float.

In Eastern Europe, Russia, and Siberia brown bear are hunted by spot and stalk methods as well, but sometimes also by baiting, chance encounter with other game in the fall, or occasionally by drives. In Russia, brown bear are sometimes taken by breaking into their dens during winter hibernation and pushing the bear out into the open.

Traditionally, big bear hunting, like all dangerous game hunting, has been primarily done with large caliber, magnum rifles, though more outfitters are now offering hunts for those who wish to amp the excitement even higher by taking brown bear with archery gear or muzzleloading firearms. Whatever hunting tool you choose to pursue big bear, you must be totally familiar and highly proficient with it. Your safety and that of your guide may end up relying on it.

Shooting is often in close quarters both because of the terrain and the guide’s wise choice to restrict rifle shots to less than 100 yards to reduce the chance of wounding bears. Bow hunters’ shots are generally taken at 25 yards or less and often at less than 10 paces. Both scenarios put prime value on stalking skills including moving silently, keeping the wind to your advantage, and staying hidden. Big bears’ sense of sight is often downplayed, but since they spend so much time in the open on the seashore and in the mountains, their eyes are attuned to both danger and prey at a distance.

Grizzly & Brown Bear Outfitters

While they are the kind of adventures that stoke a lifetime of hunting dreams, for the nonresident hunter in North America, grizzly and brown bear hunts are among the most complicated and expensive to undertake. A quality big bear hunt in Canada or Alaska will cost approximately $25,000 and up. Tags and licenses, particularly to hunt coastal brown bear, can also be expensive and complicated to acquire. In Alaska, most are on a drawing system that prevents you from reapplying for a number of years after you successfully draw a tag.

Some areas have gone to basic hunting licenses with additional trophy fees when you take a grizzly bear. This kind of system offers benefits to both the resource and the hunter, but relies on the advice of a guide who is highly experienced judging the sex, age and size of the bears encountered on the hunt.

For the non-resident hunting big bear in Alaska and Canada, regulations require you hunt with a licensed guide, so finding an experienced, trustworthy, highly-rated guide service isn’t optional … it’s mandatory. In Europe, Russia, and Siberia, access without an outfitter/guide is impossible for the non-resident hunter.

More than any other type of North American hunting, pursuing big bear puts your safety largely in the knowledge and experience of your outfitter and guide. A smart, experienced, clear-headed guide who knows brown bear and their habits gives you not only the best odds of success, but the best chance that no one will get hurt in the course of the hunt.

For all of these reasons, you should start and finish your search for a brown bear outfitter with The guides in this program have been rated by past hunters who put their trust, money … and lives … in their hands. These hunters’ ratings are your most valuable tool in finding the best outfitter to provide you the hunting adventure of a lifetime when your time comes to pursue big bear.

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