Brown Bear Fact Sheet 

BINOMIAL NAME:     Ursus arctos

Bears Bears Everywhere

You’ve climbed from the float plane somewhere in Alaska and see your first bears – you can’t wait to create a photograph.  But, wait – there is a little to know before you run across the sedges and set up your tripod.

LEFT:  Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) walking along stream in Alaska.  Note the very long and sharp claws ideally suited to capturing salmon and for digging clams.

First, I am NOT a bear expert.  This article has been adapted from several articles I have collected.  The information is relevant and has helped me in my quest to photograph all species of bears.  Furthermore, You should not take the information here and then go find a bear to photograph. This information is provided so when you do go with a guide, you are photographically prepared to capture the image.

The "myth" that many first timers have when they go to photograph bears (as in Alaska) is that anyone getting physically close to a large bear is “courting death”; many people believe that getting close–up head shots of a bear with a short focal length lens is living on the edge to say the least.  This is far from the truth if you are adequately prepared.

Photographing brown bears in socially uptight locals like Brooks Camp or McNeil River where there are lots of bears in a small space, getting physically close is probably not a wise thing to do. There are too many "bear things" going on that we humans just can't see or know about all the time.  But in situations where bears are doing bear things in wide open spaces without other "bear pressures", getting physically close is not life threatening – providing you keep calm and maintain a bear presence frame of mind.

Much of the information in this article has been gleaned from biological reports and papers.  The most important aspect of wildlife photography is understanding your subject and the habitat it lives in (especially when working with large predatory animals).  If you know your subject, you are free to navigate photographic opportunities.

This article deals with brown bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) which when observed away from coastal regions are known as grizzly bears.

Coastal brown bears have two main foraging strategies: grazing and fishing.

Vegetarian (Grazing) Bear

Brown bears emerge from their winter dens hungry. They have been living off their fat reserves for many months during hibernation and need to replace the fat they have burned during this time.  Typically bears emerge from hibernation roughly 45 days before the first salmon begin to make their run upstream.  The salmon is a vital resource for the bears as the fish provide a rich protein source.

LEFT: Two juvenile brown bears (Ursus arctos) stand upright and spar.

During this pre-salmon time, bears search for carrion such as winter moose kill or washed up seal or possibly whale carcass, however, it's not enough to sustain one brown bear let alone a whole population of bears.  Therefore, bears will begin to feed on the sedges and grasses that are exposed at low tide and will continue to feed on this source even after the salmon run commences. Vegetable matter accounts for approximately 90% of a brown bear’s nutrition.

The sea of green sedges, covering many coastal beachhead regions, attracts bears from all over the region. The lush, new growth of these grasses sustains the coastal brown bears; the bears are even able to start putting on fat from this forage.

There is a hierarchy on the sedge fields much the same as on the stream or slope. It can be summed up basically as the largest has the right of way. But there are a few caveats to this basic "king of the hill" structure that you, the bear observer and photographer, need to understand.

While the biggest bear is most likely a large male or boar, there are times when it could be a female or sow, and when a sow shows up with cubs, even the biggest boars give them space. So a female with cubs sometimes supersedes the largest in size. The pecking order basically goes from the largest to the smallest with size typically being directly related to age; the older the bigger.

Photographing the Vegetarian Bear

When photographing the bears grazing, getting a tack sharp image can be a challenge. For one thing, they are tearing at the sedges like a “wild woman “pulling out garden weeds, more so than biting the sedges off at the roots like typical grazers. This action means their heads are constantly in motion. When you focus on the eye, as you should, the jaws and their powerful muscles are right below and are in motion.  After tearing the grass, they have a mouthful of sedge, which they seem to then grind slightly in their jaws before swallowing. This causes their facial muscles to tremble as they chew. Photographing the bears while they're eating and capturing a sharp image in typical low light situations in Alaska can be challenging.

Fishing Bear

I'm sure you've all seen the image of the bear either at McNeil River or Brooks Camp where the bear is standing in a waterfall, catching leaping salmon. This is definitely the most commonly thought of way how bears catch salmon.  However, in reality there are few places such as McNeil River, and most bears do not climb out into a waterfall to catch fish.

LEFT:  Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) stands in Alaskan stream waiting for passing salmon to swim upstream.  At times there can be 5 to 6 bears in any location when the salmon are on the move.  This one has lunch!

 

The more common method of fishing for brown bears is simply along the many thousands of creeks, which salmon migrate up each summer to reproduce. Salmon can be so thick in some of these streams that they are crammed side by side, head to tail.

When it comes to catching the salmon, bears can use any one of a hundred tactics to catch a salmon. You won't know the tactic the bears you're watching will use until they actually start fishing.

They might just jump in, sending salmon and water flying! They might stand on the side of the stream and snare a salmon as it goes by with the delicate touch of the claw of their paw. They might have a favourite rock or small island in the middle of the creek they prefer to stand on, like Snoopy on his doghouse, hunched over waiting for a salmon to swim by. They might take a plunge and "swim" about with their heads underwater, looking for salmon to snatch, or they might run through the shallows of a creek, chasing salmon in hopes of pinning one under their paw.

There are varied methodologies that bears utilize to capture salmon. A lot of times, they are methods taught to youngsters by their mother and passed down generation to generation.  Even fishing sites, holes, times and strategies are passed on by the sow to the cubs.

The same basic rule of the largest gets their way applies to the fishing holes as well. The best holes are garnered by the biggest individual.  That said, once a bear has had their fill they will trot off and go to sleep to digest their meal, allowing access to other bears.

Photographing the Fishing Bear

Photographing the fishing bear takes more skill than that of the grazing bear. The reason is the action that's occurring, the bear is active in one form or another, trying to catch a fish.  To acquire a sharp image you will need a high shutter speed, and depending upon light, a higher ISO than normal.

One technique that is very useful when photographing fishing bears is panning. By panning your camera you are maintaining a sharp image of the bear while blurring the background.

 

 

ABOVE:  Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) carefully negotiates the stream edge in search for a good fishing location.

Sows and Cubs

Bear cubs, like any other baby animal are curious.  They will investigate you closely if you sit still and are quiet.  This is not dangerous as the animal is approaching you on their own terms.  Remain calm, do not panic, talk softly to the cubs and you will probably not have a problem. If you feel the cubs are encroaching too close to your personal space, or you are between the cubs and their mother, then slowly back off talking softly.  The sow will usually not show any interest of you as the cubs are not displaying any type of fear posturing; they are not squealing in alarm communicating with the mother that they are being threatened.  If the cub vocalizes, expect a problem as the sow will charge to protect her offspring.  At all times you must remain calm and in control of your actions and emotions.

Typically, it’s the dominant male cub that's the most active; off exploring a squirrel's hole, playing with a salmon carcasses or bouncing off the side of its mother.

Bear Smell

Bears have an incredible sense of smell.  A bear can smell the carcass of a dead fish 100 yards away.  Bears use smell to detect prey, potentially dangerous adversaries and to know whether another bear is in season (for mating).

LEFT: Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) lifts head to smell the wind for other bears in the vicinity.

If you observe a bear’s nose, it will provide you with incite to what the bear is thinking and may do.  I am very careful not to approach a bear upwind which may startle the bear.  A startled bear may charge out of surprise. 

When traveling bear country, such as traversing sedge grounds, make noise, sing, or talk softly – especially if upwind.  If downwind, be assured the bear will know you are there as they can smell you!

Capturing The Light

Coastal brown bears (indeed most animals) exhibit variance in fur colour and texture.  Individuals maybe exhibit light, dark or in-between tonality with short or long fur.  Likewise, no bear face is exactly the same, each showing subtle differences in phenotype.

In general, slightly overcast days are best for photographing bears with the early morning and late afternoon golden light being prime times.  Normally, I would dial in +1/3 to whatever base exposure I calculated from the animal; this allows for greater detail to be recorded by lightening up the image, rather than just a darkish shape being recorded.  It also allows the eye to be visible.  The eye in any animal photograph should be in sharp focus as the eye is what draws a viewer into the image.  Darker pelted individuals often loose detail in the eye.

If you are forced to shoot in bright sunny conditions, try and make the most of the situation.  Try shooting back or side lit images so that the fur stands out.  Failing this, wait for evening light when the sun is low to the horizon.

Do’s and Don’ts When Shooting Bears

  • Never directly approach a bear, always approach on an angle, edging closer and closer.
  • Never move into an animal’s safety zone.  If the animal appears to be concerned about you, then you are too close and you should back away slowly – watch the animal’s eyes, ears and general disposition Never turn and run from a bear as it may trigger the animal’s nature urge to chase prey (and you are the prey).
  • Try to not get between a sow and cubs, and then only do so when the cubs approach you.
  • When a bear is close, do not make sharp and rapid movements.  If you have to move, make your movements slow and deliberate.
  • Before you start photographing, observe the bears to determine their mood If traversing bear country, make noise so as to not startle a bear or sow with cubs.
  • Never approach a bear upwind as the bear will not be able to smell you and may be startled when you suddenly appear beside it!
  • Ensure you do not have fish oil or other animal odours on you or your clothing.
  • Always carry bear spray (pepper spray) and a hand flare – and know how to deploy and use them quickly.
  • Finally, a bear is a large predatory animal.  During times when food is abundant, you have little to fear, unless you do something foolish such as startle a sow and cubs at close quarters.  But, when food is scarce and the bears are attempting to gain as much weight (fat) as possible to see them through the harsh winter, you maybe deemed as suitable prey.  ALWAYS remember that in the city you may be "top dog", but in the wilds you are only a small link in the food chain.

Basic Bear Facts

The Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) is an omnivorous mammal of the family Ursidae and is  distributed across much of northern Eurasia and North America. It weighs between 100–700 kg (220-1,500 pounds) and larger individuals such as the Kodiak bear match the Polar bear as the largest extant land carnivores.

While the brown bear's range has shrunk, and it has faced local extinctions, it remains listed as a least concern species with a total population of approximately 200,000. Its principal range countries are Russia, the United States (especially Alaska), Canada, and Finland, where it is the national animal.

The species primarily feeds on vegetable matter, including roots and fungi. Fish are a primary source of meat, and it will also kill small mammals on land. Larger mammals, such as deer, are taken only occasionally. Adult brown bears face no serious competition from other predators and can match wolf packs and large felines, often driving them off their kills. 

Disclaimer

As said in the first paragraph, this information is just that!  It is NOT everything you need to know about brown bears and how to interact with them.  If inexperienced I strongly suggest you seek the service of a reputable guide knowledgeable in bear behavior - at least until you know the ropes and feed confident in venturing out yourself.

ABOVE:  Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) briefly stops fishing to look intently at the photographer some 15 feet away.  Bears can get close, and you have to try and remain calm at all times.  The experience is exhilarating to be so close to such a large predator.