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The Biggest of the Big—The Brown Bears of Alaska and Russia’s Far East

Kodiak brown bear (Nat Geo Archives)

If you can get past the concept that all grizzlies are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzlies—a source of great confusion to some—there is an opportunity to learn about the most wide-ranging species of bear in the world, and one of the most wide-ranging mammals on Earth.

Although “grizzly bear” is used interchangeably with “brown bear” up here in Alaska, “grizzly bear” really refers to any brown bear found in interior North America.   Bears found within interior regions of Alaska and Canada as well as remnant interior populations in the western portion of the contiguous US are grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis).

There are only about 1200 grizzly bears found in the lower 48.  They primarily exist in designated Recovery Zones in Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and Idaho. Bears of other interior regions and sometime even coastal zones in Eurasia may be referred to as grizzlies, to add to the confusion.

In contrast, there are approximately 32,000 brown bears living in Alaska.  Some of Alaska’s islands like Admiralty Island in the Southeast part of the state and the Kodiak Archipelago off the southern coast of mainland Alaska are home to some of the densest populations of brown bears in the world.

Kodiak is home to about 3400 brown bears of a particularly large subspecies. The the Kodiak brown bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi) is often touted as the largest terrestrial carnivore on the planet.  Because of access to an abundance of fish Alaska’s coastal brown bears, similar to the Kodiak, can attain weights upwards of 1400 pounds.

Here at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, we currently have Alaska coastal bears, a grizzly, and Kodiak brown bears, as well as two American black bears. Most of these are permanent residents at the facility.

Kamchatka brown bear feeding on Pacific salmon (Nat Geo Archives)

Just across the Bering Strait from Alaska lives another gigantic brown bear–the Kamchatka brown bear (Ursus arctos beringianus) or the Far Eastern brown bear. Considered to be the ancestor of the Kodiak, the Kamchatka brown bears are dark brown and the largest carnivorans in Eurasia.  These are the bears that were featured in the PBS special Walking with Giants: The Grizzlies of Siberia.  The film documents the work of Charlie Russel and Maureen Ebbs–two naturalists who sought to discover some insight into the lives of the bears of the famed Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia.

The black grizzly or Ussuri brown bear (Ursus arctos lasiotus) is another big bear occasionally attaining a size greater than the Kamchatka brown bear.  These bears are found in the Amur and Ussuri River regions of the Russian Far East, northeastern China, the Korean   Peninsula and Japan.

In the Amur region these bears cross paths with Siberian (Aumr) tigers on rare occasions, primarily because there are so few Siberian tigers left in the world.  Tiger attacks on bears have been reported when the bears were in hibernaculum as well while ambulatory.  Supposedly, the brown bears are attacked with more frequency than the smaller Asiatic black bears because of habitat preference and an inability to climb trees.  But these bears also attack the typically smaller tigers on occasion.   The bears are more commonly known to track tigers, following the big cats’ foot prints to ungulate kills, where they ultimately force the cat off the carcass, taking possession of it.

“Huang Di” which translates in Chinese to “King” is the name of the celebrity Ussuri brown bear (Manchurian brown bear) who calls the San Diego Zoo his home.  Nicknamed “Blackie,” Huang Di is one of the largest and most beautiful bears I have ever seen. The black bear is a gentle giant, standing nearly 5 ft at the shoulders and weighing in at nearly 900 lbs.  Today his enclosure sits adjacent to two young brother grizzlies.  When I last visited Huang Di who was born at the Bejing Zoo in 1984 he lumbered over toward the large metal divider, that when closed, safely separated the younger bears from the big Ussuri brown bear in the adjacent bear grotto.  Smell or sound of this gigantic boar in their proximity sent them scrambling to a distant hiding place on the other side of their enclosure. Click here for a photo of Huang Di (A.K.A. Blackie).

Jordan is an ex officio council member of the International Association for Bear Research & Management and member of the Coordinating Committee for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (World Conservation Union).





  1. ian
    United States
    November 21, 10:00 pm

    Yes Polar bears are the largest speacies on Earth. Having said that , some kodiaks are commonly weighed in at 1700 lbs. These are very close n size to the Polar bear specious , they are cousins to the Polar bears family tree and separated sometime around 10, 000 years b.c.e. Polar bears are also the most auquatic bear , some gps tagged Polar bears have been seen as far as 40 miles off shore swimming. To the amazement of biologistthat bear returned to the Artic. We are being amazed what polar bears actually do. The swimming example was at first thought to be a one off. Biologists have since learned that the Polar bear is maybe more at home in the sea. Polars frequently will swim 10 miles to hunt for the larger seal or other prey. Polar bears INHO are the most amazing bears of all.

  2. John Munroe
    Bellingham, Wa.
    November 14, 2016, 8:00 pm

    Olympic Game Farm in Sequim, Wa. has several enormous Kodiak bears. You get to feed them brown bread.

  3. […] The forests around Nanae are known for Ussuri brown bears, also called black grizzly bears. […]

  4. […] The forests around Nanae are known for Ussuri brown bears, also called black grizzly bears. […]

  5. […] The forests around Nanae are known for Ussuri brown bears, also called black grizzly bears. […]

  6. […] The northern Japanese island of Hokkaido actually has a healthy population of Ussuri brown bears, which can rival Alaskan brown bears in size, but that’s several hundred miles and an ocean channel north of […]

  7. Chris Miller
    Rancocas, New Jersey
    February 21, 2016, 1:22 am

    I don’t know what your source is, but it is widely acknowledged that Polar Bears are the largest species, not Brown Bears (or their subspecies, Kodiak & Grizzly). Larger Polar Bears weigh over 1700 lbs. One weighing 2200 lbs was reported, although that was over 100 years ago and therefore difficult to verify. Larger brown bears do run a relatively close second.

  8. Monica
    Calgary Alberta
    June 13, 2015, 4:59 pm

    name correction : Maureen Enns researched with Charlie Russell. NOT Ebbs.

  9. Clara
    February 11, 2015, 11:21 pm

    Some of the most beautiful bears I have ever seen. Blackie is gorgeous. What awesome creatures all bears are. My dream is too see them in their natural habitat .A visit to Brook Falls and Kodiak Island is my dream.With safety for all being number one of course. Not so much my husband’s idea of a dream though.

  10. Clara
    February 11, 2015, 11:00 pm

    Some of the most beautiful bears I have ever seen. Blackie is gorgeous. What awesome creatures all bears are. My dream is to get a chance to see them in the wild in their natural habitat. A visit to Brook Falls and Kodiak Island is my dream. With safety for all being number one, of course.

  11. Lauren
    24 32nd avenue
    December 4, 2013, 10:15 am

    It didn’t say how big the bears are.

  12. Lauren
    24 32nd avenue
    December 4, 2013, 10:12 am

    This website was ever so useful for my science homework and my project.