Are There Polar Bears in Alaska?

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Are there polar bears in Alaska?

There’s one species of bear that everyone around the world can quickly identify: polar bears (or Ursus maritimus if using their scientific name). Their iconic white coat (which are actually colorless hollow hairs) elicits an image of the cold snow-covered Arctic environment they call home.

Many people come to Alaska hoping to seeing a polar bear. But, are there polar bears in Alaska? The short answer is yes, but you’re unlikely to see them unless you travel to the most northern portions of the state. And even then, unless you’re there at the right time of year, you’re unlikely to encounter one.

In this post, I’ll describe where and when you can find polar bears in Alaska, how many live in Alaska, and how to stay safe when traveling in polar bear country.

Where are There Polar Bears in Alaska?

Polar bears are an iconic Arctic species that live around the Arctic Circle. Polar bears occur in 5 different countries around the world. The United States, Canada, Norway, Russia, and Greenland (part of Denmark). While a number of polar bears occur south of the Arctic Circle, the majority of bears reside north of it.

Distribution of 19 polar bear populations (PBSG)

Polar bear scientists currently recognize 19 populations of polar bears, although there is currently discussion about adding a 20th population in southeast Greenland.

Polar bear distribution is tightly linked to areas having reliable sea ice in winter and spring from which the bears hunt ice-dependent seals (their primary prey). Thus, not all areas of the Alaskan coastline are habitat for polar bears and why polar bears in Alaska are primarily located on and adjacent to the Arctic Ocean.

Current Distribution in Alaska

So, where are there polar bears in Alaska? The vast majority of polar bears in Alaska will either occur on the Alaska shoreline from the Bering Strait to the Alaska/Canada border to the northeast, or on the sea ice north of Alaska’s coastline.

General distribution of polar bears in Alaska (ADFG)

When on land in Alaska, polar bears typically don’t occur further than a couple of miles inland, with the vast majority occurring right along the coastline. The primary exception to this rule are denning females, which can occur up to 20 miles inland of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Polar bear maternal den (USFWS photo)
Recently born polar bear cubs (USFWS photo)

If polar bears had their choice, they would spend as much time as possible on the sea ice off the coast of northern Alaska hunting seals. But, sea ice melts each summer and retreats north of the coast. During that time, polar bears have a choice to either come to land until the ice returns or stay on the ice.

Recent research has shown that more polar bears are coming to shore in northern Alaska during summer, and spending longer periods there because of sea ice loss. This trend is expected to continue over the coming decades as well.

Polar bear with cubs on land (USFWS photo)
Lone polar bear walks on land (USFWS photo)

Polar bears in Alaska typically come on land beginning in early August as the ice retreats over the unproductive waters of the Arctic Basin. Polar bears stay on land in Alaska until the sea ice reforms which has occurred around October in recent years.

Unless you’re planning to travel to northern Alaska (i.e., north of the Arctic Circle), and especially along the Arctic coastline, you’re unlikely to encounter a polar bear when visiting Alaska. But, if you will be anywhere near the northern Alaska coast in summer or winter, you’ll need to extremely vigilant for polar bears.

Are There Polar Bears in Alaska Outside the Arctic?

As I mentioned earlier, polar bears don’t stray too far from the Alaskan Arctic Ocean coastline, with the exception of the northern Bering Sea in the Pacific Ocean. But, from time to time, polar bears have been observed far outside of their normal range.

Polar bears used to regularly occur as far south in the Bering Sea as the Pribilof Islands. Historical records starting in the mid-1700s show that polar bears lived on the islands in summer. But they clearly lived there further back than when they were initially discovered there. Polar bears were last observed on the islands in the late 1800s.

In more recent years, a polar bear was observed in the community of Fort Yukon, Alaska: over 240 miles from the Arctic Ocean! That observation is a huge anomaly as polar bears shouldn’t occur that far south in the interior of Alaska.

Location of Fort Yukon, Alaska
Location of Yukon River outlet, Alaska

Another odd polar bear observation of a polar bear in Alaska where it shouldn’t be is at the mouth of the Yukon River, where it enters the Bering Sea. A bear was observed on land in the area in 2010 shocking local residents. Again, this is an odd place for polar bears to summer in Alaska, far south of the Arctic Sea ice.

It’s not clear why polar bears were found in either of these locations, but it seems most likely that they simply got turned around. Either way, it’s extremely rare to have polar bears in these areas.

It’s a good reminder to always be vigilant of your surroundings in Alaska. Even if polar bears aren’t around, you’re almost always in black (Ursus americanus) of brown bear (Ursus arctos), so it’s always important to check your surroundings when in any kind of bear country.

How Many Polar Bears Live in Alaska?

Estimating how many polar bears are in Alaska is a challenging task for wildlife biologists given the remote and harsh conditions polar bears live. It entails years of efforts to obtain reliable estimates.

There are two populations of polar bears that live in Alaska; the Chukchi Sea and Southern Beaufort Sea populations.

The Chukchi Sea population is shared between the United States and Russia and was recently estimated to number around 3,000 polar bears. Not all of these bears occur on land in Alaska, but can occur on the sea ice off the coast.

The Southern Beaufort Sea population is shared between the United States and Canada and was recently estimated to have approximately 900 polar bears. Again, not all of these occur on land in Alaska. But another recent study showed that there are an average of approximately 150 polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea population that occur on the northern Alaska coast in late summer and autumn.

Staying Safe Around Polar Bears in Alaska

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides some really important tips on staying safe in polar bear country. They include:

  • Avoid attracting polar bears
    • Use bear resistant food containers
    • Avoid cooking smelly foods outdoors
  • Avoid camping on polar bear travel routes
    • Along beaches, barrier islands, or areas with reduced visibility
  • Travel as a group
    • Stay close to group members
  • Remain vigilant
    • Constantly scan your surroundings
  • Carry polar bear deterrents

Summary

Are there polar bears in Alaska? There definitely are, but you’re unlikely to see one unless you visit the northern most part of the state. Even then your chances of seeing a polar bear are pretty low.

But if you do visit northern Alaska, especially areas near the coast, you need to be very aware of your surroundings as an unexpected encounter with polar bears can be dangerous.

Curious to learn more interesting facts about wildlife? Check out my other wildlife information posts.

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AUTHOR
Ryan has Ph.D. in Wildlife Biology with over 20 years of experience working in the field. He has published dozens of research articles in scientific journals and has worked on a variety of animals ranging from ground squirrels to polar bears. He has also been recognized by The Wildlife Society as a Certified Wildlife Biologist.