Brown bears are found in the northern regions of North America. Most populations are found throughout Alaska, but brown bears can also be found in the northern U.S. states of Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming. There are around 55,000 brown bears in North America, with approximately 35,000 found in U.S. states. The remaining 20,000 brown bears live in Canada.
Of the 35,000 brown bears in North America, roughly 30,000 live in Alaska. The remaining few thousand individuals can be found in small populations of the U.S. in recovery zones or isolated areas.
Please read on to learn more about brown bears, the best time of year to see them, and the best places to spot them.
The brown bear population in Alaska is around 30,000 individuals. This number makes up more than 95% of the U.S. brown bear population. There are two distinct types of bears in Alaska; those found in coastal areas are called brown bears, and populations found in mountainous regions are called grizzlies.
While they are both the same species of bear, there are some key differences between them. Brown bears are much larger due to the abundance of food in their territory. Brown bears in coastal areas like to feed on salmon and berries. They may also hunt for carcasses during winter, such as caribou, and they have also been observed catching mussels and clams.
Brown bears living away from the coast are limited in their food choices. Approximately 80% of their diet will be vegetarian. During spring and early summer, bears will feed on grasses and roots. Fall brings the growth of various berries, and during winter, bears may also search for carrion (dead animals), and they occasionally hunt moose and caribou calves.
Idaho has the smallest population of brown bears in North America. Approximately 100 years ago, they were almost completely eradicated from the state, but numbers have slowly increased over the last decade.
The current estimated population of brown bears in Idaho is 100. They are found mostly in eastern Idaho, close to Yellowstone National Park, and also in areas of northern Idaho. By comparison, the estimated population of black bears in Idaho is around 20,000.
Numbers remain low, and the brown bear population is at risk, primarily due to hunting. In areas where bears frequently attack livestock, farmers may call on local hunters to try and remove the bears from their farmland.
Montana has a healthier population of brown bears, with approximately 1800-2000 individuals. The population used to stand at around 15,000, but various control measures and habitat deterioration led to a substantial decline in brown bears numbers across Montana. Since 1921 there have been various management measures in place to protect the population of brown bears in the state.
Brown bears can be seen in Montana from March through to late September, when they will begin to search for a suitable winter denning spot.
Montana has native populations of brown bears, but they also get a large number of migratory brown bears passing through from Canadian territories. This helps to increase the genetic diversity of the brown bear populations.
Brown bears in Montana will feed mainly on carrion, plants, roots, grasses, berries, fish, and small mammals. They may also hunt for young or injured moose.
Although there is a sizeable population of black bears in Washington (around 25,000), there are only estimated to be 500-600 brown bears in the northern state, split between two populations. These brown bear populations are vital to improving the success of brown bears across the state. It is believed that most brown bears in Washington are the result of expansion from brown bear populations in neighboring Idaho or migration from British Colombia.
Most are found along the Colombia river close to the Canadian border. A small population also lives in the Selkirk Grizzly Bear recovery zone. Areas where brown bears live, are small due to habitat fragmentation from roads and human development. This fragmentation makes it difficult for brown bears to find suitable mates or large areas for foraging.
Hunting brown bears is illegal in Washington and carry heavy fines. All black bear hunters in Washington must prove they have completed the WDFW bear identification test. The test is designed to help minimize the accidental killing of brown bears, as they can be easily mistaken for black bears.
The populations of black bears and brown bears in Wyoming are almost identical, with approximately 600-800 individuals. Just like Washington, the state of Wyoming also has a Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone. To date, almost all of the documented sightings of brown bears in Wyoming were from inside the recovery zone.
As the population of brown bears increases, the expectation is that more individuals will be found outside the recovery zone, which could pose a threat. An increase in brown bear numbers also means an increase in bear-human conflict.
This includes bears hunting farmers’ livestock or venturing into residential areas in search of food. Brown bears residing in areas where food is limited are more likely to be aggressive with humans than bears found in areas where food is plentiful.
While the brown bear population in Wyoming remains low, their numbers are slowly increasing, and they are no longer considered endangered within the state of Wyoming.
Canada is one of the best places to spot brown bears. The estimated brown bear population across the west and north of Canada is 20,000, which continues to grow. The brown bear population in Canada is thriving thanks to a combination of conservation measures and fewer human-developed areas. Canada is also a popular tourist destination for bear watchers. Brown bears can be found right across western and northern Canada and in the U.S. state of Alaska.
Between May and October, brown bears can be seen along the Bella Coola River in British Colombia. This coincides with the salmon spawning season and results in large gatherings of usually solitary bears. The Cariboo and Chilcotin mountains are also great places to spot brown bears. Glendale Cove is another good bear-watching spot. The bears can be seen here from early spring, but the best times to go on a bear-watching tour are September and October when the salmon run occurs along the Glendale River.
Canada is also home to the Great Bear Rainforest, a collection of islands, valleys, and coastal inlets stretching along the west coast from the Alaska Panhandle down to Knight Inlet in British Colombia. Brown bears can also be seen in Nunavut, Alberta, Northwest Territories, and Yukon.