Ancestor of the polar bear by any name: grizzly vs. brown bear monikers explained

Apparently, all media outlets (except Fox News) so confused the distinction between the two common names used for the ancestor of polar bears, Ursus arctos, that they got the point of a recent news story totally wrong. An Alaskan journalist explains.

Coastal brown bears from Admiralty Island, southeast Alaska. See previous post here.

Coastal brown bears from Admiralty Island, southeast Alaska (courtesy Jim Baichtal, US Forest Service, Alaska). See previous post here.

Tundra grizzly from the Yukon (courtesy Government of Yukon Territory). These bears also occur across the north slope of Alaska and are the bears that occasionally hybridize with polar bears, as explained here.

Tundra grizzly bear from the Yukon (courtesy Government of Yukon Territory). These bears also occur across the north slope of Alaska and are the bears that occasionally hybridize with polar bears this time of year, as explained here.

From this Alaska Dispatch story, by Craig Medred on May 7 2014, Big grizzly shot by Fairbanks hunter — but not the biggest ever:

“A mid-size Alaska grizzly bear shot by a Fairbanks hunter has claimed a hunting record that has the national media tripping all over itself to get things wrong.

“The bar has officially been raised,” reported Outside magazine on Wednesday. “By decree of the Boone and Crockett Club, the nearly nine-foot grizzly bear taken by Larry Fitzgerald (not the Cardinals’ wide receiver) near Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2013 is now officially the largest bear killed by a hunter.”

That a nine-foot grizzly is the largest bear killed by a hunter in Alaska is likely to come as a surprise to Alaskans, some number of whom — hunters or not — might have seen 10-foot grizzly bears. This small fact, however, seems not to have entered the consciousness of the mainstream media as of yet.

Fitzgerald’s kill is a record bear only because it was shot north of the Alaska Range. South of those mountains slicing through Denali National Park and Preserve, his bear would be just another big bear. That’s because the record-keeping Boone and Crockett Club arbitrarily splits Alaska brown-grizzly bears into two separate categories — grizzly bears and brown bears. The world-record Alaska brown bear, taken in Kodiak in 1952, is much larger.

The state of Alaska doesn’t recognize the distinction between a grizzly bear and an Alaska brown bear, nor do wildlife scientists. Both say the only real difference is diet.

Coastal bears, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game notes, “grow larger and live in higher densities than their ‘grizzly’ cousins in the northern and interior parts of the state. To minimize confusion,” state wildlife biologists refer to all of these bears as “brown bears,” though grizzly is an arguably a more common popular term.

That’s because the description “brown” can also be used to describe color of the state’s cinnamon-colored black bears, and when dealing with bears in wild Alaska it is vitally important for people to be able to tell the difference between black bears, no matter their color, and grizzly bears.

Black bears are animals generally conditioned to flee rather than fight. Even seemingly aggressive black bears can be intimidated by people and driven off in a confrontation. Grizzlies are another matter. They are just as likely to fight as to flee, and so people are advised not to confront them.

Grizzly bears also come in a much bigger package than black bears. Mature, male, brown-grizzly bears on Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula can reach heights of more than 10 feet when standing on their hind legs. Fitzgerald’s bear was not that big.

In fact, it didn’t even come close to the size of a bear from Kodiak, the Gulf of Alaska coast, or even the Kenai Peninsula. Fitzgerald’s bear scored 27 6/16 on the Boone and Crockett trophy measure, which determines bear size by the length and width of the animal’s skull.

The bears are too big to weigh. The largest of them can go more than 1,500 pounds. Bears that big are hard to even roll over to skin. And they have massive heads.

Fox News, it is worth noting, did get the headline on this story right. “Alaska hunter bags world record grizzly bear,” it reported. Fitzgerald did bag what Boone and Crockett calls a “grizzly bear,” but the B&C grizzly is but one small segment of the Alaska bruin population. Not to mention that the hunting club that traces its roots to President Theodore Roosevelt defines bears not by taxonomy but by geography.

“A line of separation between the larger growing coastal brown bear and the smaller interior grizzly has been developed such that west and south of this line (to and including Unimak Island) bear trophies are recorded as Alaska brown bear. North and east of this line, bear trophies are recorded as grizzly bear,” the club says.

Fitzgerald’s bear was shot near the southern end of the northern zone, but still in the zone. And thus he was credited with the largest grizzly ever shot by a hunter. There is a bigger skull dating back to 1976, but it came from the carcass of an already-dead bear.” [my bold]

Rest of the story here.

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