A huge brown bear

A Bit on Bears: Diet, behavior, and distribution of the Brown/Grizzly Bear

The brown bear is an amazing animal in more ways than one. To begin with, it can boast of one of the largest and more varied distributions of all big mammals. Until human civilization began its triumphal and disastrous march, the range of the brown bear covered all of Europe, almost all of Asia, most of North America and even the north of Africa. In fact, even 200 years ago the Atlas brown bear roamed the mountains of Algeria, Tunis and Morocco, and 100 years ago there were grizzlies in California and in Mexico all the way up to the tropical jungle belt. 

Even today, the area covered by different subspecies of the brown bear is impressive. Bears are found in many European countries, and in Romania, Croatia, Serbia and Estonia are numerous enough for a hunting season to be open. The Cantabrian brown bear survived, although in very small numbers, in the Apennines and Pyrenees (most of the bears in France and Spain today have been introduced from Eastern Europe). Sweden and Finland can also boast of healthy bear populations, with the presence of the animal recorded in Poland and BelarusRussia, as we have already written, is home to seven varieties of bear, six of those are brown (the seventh is Hymalayan). The Syrian subspecies of the brown bear inhabits Transcaucasian countries like Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, and the Asian brown bear dwells in Middle Asia, Nepal, Pakistan and Northern India. Even such inhospitable and unlikely places as the Tibetian Plateau and the Gobi Desert are inhabited by this amazing animal! 

In North America, Wilson and Reader’s Mammal Species of the World (3rd edition), believed to be the ultimate authority in mammal classification, lists as many as seven subspecies:  Alaskan (Ursus arctos alascensis), Kodiak (Ursus arctos middendorffi), Dall’s (Ursus arctos dalli), Sitka (Ursus arctos sitkensis), Stickeen (Ursus arctos stikeenensis), Peninsula (Ursus arctos gyas), and Grizzly (Ursus arctos horribilis) (source). This is not a record: in the early XX century Merriam described 86 subspecies of brown bear in North America. Today, however, most biologists seem to agree on three: the Kodiak, the Coastal Brown Bear, and the Grizzly. Hunting guides and outfitters further discriminate between Coastal and Interior Browns, but this division is based more on diet and behavior, than on genes, bones, and morphology. 

Brown bear at a bait site in Russia

You don’t get such a wide distribution by being a narrow niche specialist. The brown bear is an omnivore that can adapt to an astonishing array of habitats – and food choices. They can follow herds of caribou, kill elk, moose and even bison, eat granola and other grass, fruit, berries and nuts, and dig roots. Everybody heard about brown bears’ dependence on salmon on the Pacific ocean coasts. And that’s not all. Siberian bears love to plunder the winter supplies of chipmunks, and Asian brown bears in the mountains of Pakistan are highly successful at hunting marmots. Interestingly enough, it seems that in this population only male bears hunt marmots, which accounts for their having over 50% more body mass than females. 

There are two conflicting stereotypes about brown bears. One describes them as a fierce predator. The other pictures a soft-toy image of a mostly herbivore, feeding peacefully on fruits, berries, and so on. The truth is that bears are both at the same time – sort of like us, only different. We are social, bears are individualistic. We started out many species ago as mostly herbivores and learned to eat meat – bears travelled in the opposite direction, their skeleton and muscles are those of a carnivore, but their skull and teeth show signs of adaptation to a plant-based diet. But both people and bears are hunter-gatherers that need a balanced diet. 

Eating a fruit-rich diet helps a bear grow the fat that it needs for successful hibernation. However, it does little to build their muscles. By contrast, high-protein foods like meat or fish are great for body muscle mass but are less efficient in terms of getting fat. This may explain why plant-eating bruins tend to be more docile than predatory ones – he that knows he’s short of strength usually avoids fighting. But in any case, if a bear is to grow real big, it needs a lot of both. Which is precisely the case on the salmon rivers of the Pacific. Everybody knows how important salmon is for the bears in these areas. A bit less known fact is that Kamchatka and Alaska bears also have access to quite a good supply of berries and dwarf pine cones. And in the height of salmon or berry season a coastal brown bear is easy to seduce with a promise of some meat meal!  

Available food supply has a lot of influence not only on size, but also on behavior. Brown bears are great fighters (Amur brown bears have been known to kill Siberian tigers), and they don’t have much fear of anything. That “natural fear of man” that old authors loved to toute is a myth. In most parts of their range, bears tend to avoid humans, but this behavior is not imprinted in the genome, it is learned. If a cub sees its mother avoid humans, it will continue to do so after it is a big bear. But this behavior will become less prominent as the bruins realize humans aren’t a threat to them here and now. Bears are not afraid, but they’re darned good at risk assessment. 

This risk assessment skill is what determines whether a bear will or won’t be willing to engage in a conflict.  A handful of berries is, in most cases, simply not worth fighting over. Even if you win, you may spend more calories that you’ll get from the spoils. Not to mention the risk of being wounded: with no antibiotics or surgery available even a small wound may become fatal. So is a salmon: stepping aside and catching another fish is more energy-efficient than fighting. In presence of an unlimited supply of food, bears become docile and peaceful. 

A carcass of a caribou or elk, on the other hand, is a whole different story. Not only is it “expensive” to get or replace, it also stores more calories than a bear is likely to spend in a fight, and invaluable protein at that. Worth fighting for. Some of the interior grizzly populations of Alaska and Canada, and the “inland” bear of Chukotka, that follow herds of caribou, are more “hunters” than “gatherers”, and they are predictably likely to charge anyone at the slightest provocation or even without it. This is often described as “mean-tempered”, but is actually pragmatic. When stakes are high, and any conflict is likely to escalate into fighting to death, why waste energy on demonstrations and tour-de-force? Better to get straight to the point, with an extra advantage of unexpectancy.

 

Even in places like the European part of Russia, where bears mostly live on a vegetarian diet – grass in the spring, cereal crops in the summer, berries in the summer and autumn – a bear, especially a big bear, will never say no to a big chunk of meat. This is why most Russian outfitters place their bets on baits made of domestic animals that have died of non-contagious diseases. And the bears value these baits highly. Have a look at the video above, and check out the reaction of the small bear. It probably suspects a bigger bear is approaching, and doesn’t care to face it. Bears don’t have a concept of “property” – every bit of food that a bear finds is his or her, including that elk you just killed. Unless, of course, someone stronger claims it. 

In most parts of the world, the brown bear is doing fine. There’s not enough data on Tibetian and Asian brown bears, but their populations are mostly stable. About the only subspecies of the brown bear whose numbers are in decline is the Syrian, but trophy hunting for this subspecies is nearly nonexistent. All other populations are listed as “Least Concern”, so it’s hard to understand why some people insist on calling the American grizzly “endangered”. At present, brown bear hunting opportunities in North America are limited to the Yukon province of Canada and Alaska, but exactly the same species may be harvested, much more affordably, elsewhere in the world. If you are willing to pursue this amazing and dangerous quarry, you can find the best offers from most reputable guides and outfitters on BookYourHunt.com  

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