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The mystery of bear coloration

Black bears can come in many colors depending on where it calls home. Wire photo

The common black bear, Ursus Americanus, is not suitably named because particularly in the West, a black bear is as likely to be a number of other colors other than black.

I have seen cinnamon-colored bears with brown or black legs, chocolate brown-colored bears, blond bears with dark brown or black legs that looked like huge tarantulas from a distance, and also jet-black bears that one would expect. These were bears from Wyoming, Montana, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

For some reason, most black bears in the eastern U.S. are indeed black in color as are those in Alaska. Some years ago I spent a couple weeks in the Kuskokwim Mountains of southwest Alaska on a caribou hunt. Of more than a dozen different black bears spotted during the hunt, every one was black. I also lived in Juneau in Southeast Alaska for more than three years and never saw a black bear that wasn’t black.

Interestingly, an unusual blue/grey color phase of Ursus Americanus is called the “glacier bear” and it occurs only in Southeast Alaska along the great ice sheets near Yakutat. This is the area around Resurrection Bay and Disenchantment Bay — country in the shadow of the St. Elias Mountains on the Alaska/Yukon border.

I know a wealthy fellow from Casper, Wyo., who has a life-size mount of a glacier bear in his palatial home.

The late Warren Page also shot a couple glacier bears with legendary Ralph Young as guide. (I met Ralph Young in Juneau more than 30 years ago, shortly before he died of cancer.)

Another curious color phase is found only on a handful of islands off the central coast of British Columbia. Known as the Kermode bear or “spirit bear” to the native Haidas and Tsimshians, the Kermode bear is white as a polar bear, but it is still the black bear species. I understand there are about 400 in existence and there is no hunting for them allowed.

Grizzly bears, Ursus arctos, also vary markedly in coloration. In my experience one is more likely to see the “silvertip” coloration in the interior from Wyoming through western Montana and into southeastern British Columbia. These bears may have silver-or-yellow-tipped guard hairs while their pelts will vary from a tawny light brown to a very dark chocolate.

I have seen only a couple grizzlies in the Yukon and those particular bears were dark brown. Many grizzlies in interior Alaska are lighter in color, in fact Alaska natives call the blond bears “Toklat” grizzlies. They have light blond bodies with dark brown or black legs.

Most bears I have seen on the Alaska Peninsula have been caramel/brown, although again, you never know what you might come across. While living in Juneau I made three hunts for Alaskan brown bears on Chichagof and Admiralty islands and saw some 50 different bears. Most of the bears were dark chocolate brown — so dark that they looked black from afar.

One gloomy evening Laurie and I saw an enormous sow near Freshwater Bay on Chichagof Island with three adult cubs. The cubs were all chocolate brown but the adult female was much lighter in coloration.

My father shot a male Alaskan brown bear in Tenakee Inlet on the same island while hunting with Laurie and me in 1985. I have the rug in my trophy room, and it also is a tawny, caramel color with dark legs.

The only coastal brown bears I have seen on Kodiak Island were from the window of a Dehaviland Beaver floatplane while flying in for a fishing trip a few years ago. They all looked chocolate brown to me.

Lewis and Clark called the grizzly “the great white bear” so one would assume the plains grizzlies that existed two centuries ago were very light in color. (An island on the Missouri River at Great Falls is named White Bear Island.) I have never seen what I would consider a “white” grizzly bear, although one time in British Columbia I spotted a grizzly that was brown in the body with a blond head!

No matter how many I see, bears of all colorations always fascinate me!

Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been                                        an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974