Coats of many colors: Woodford to speak on Alaska’s bears

A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. Grizzly bears are called brown bears in SE Alaska, but are the same animal. (Courtesy of Terry Tollefsbol / USFWS)

This article was originally published in The Juneau Empire.

by Amy Condra

How do you coax out the crowds on a chilly Friday evening in Juneau?

Laurie Craig, an interpreter at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, cites one topic that tends to pack the house: Animals.

“I call it ‘charismatic fauna,’” said Craig, who has been organizing the center’s Fireside Lectures for seven years. “Furry animals bring in more visitors than anything else!”

This week’s scheduled presentation, “Alaskan Bears: Coats of Many Colors,” is aimed at easing the curiosity of those among us, and there are clearly many, who want to know more about these animals that share our world.

In Juneau we are surrounded by bears, says Riley Woodford, a writer and editor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation.

“We live in one of the best places in the worlds for bears,” said Woodford, who will be speaking on the topic Friday night.

Woodford says his interest in the coats and colors of local bears was sparked by a comment from a researcher.

“It was really casual,” said Woodford. “A biologist, Kevin White, was doing some work with bears north of town, and said to me, ‘Hey, check out these white cubs! There’s a black mother bear with three cubs, and two of them are white!’”

Woodford, who worked as a field biologist before becoming a writer, said he started looking into the topic after White sent him some photographs of the bears.

Most black bears are black, says Woodford, and most brown bears are brown. Those are the classic colors, he adds.

“But in Southeast Alaska we have rules — and then we have the exception to the rules,” he said.

A black bear’s fur will probably be black — but it just might be brown, cinnamon, blonde or white.

Or, a black bear may have a bluish-gray hue — a rare variety known as a glacier bear.

A brown bear’s fur can also range in color from blonde to nearly black.

Woodford says the way in which bears are classified is ironic.

“They are called black or brown bears, but there is so much variety in how they look that they really can’t be defined by their color.” What causes these variations?

Woodford says a black bear with a white cub, for example, can probably credit genetics for the shake-up.

“That could be caused be a mutation, or a couple of recessive genes in a perfect storm,” he said.

But not all color changes are genetic — other factors can also have an effect.

“Bears can change color as they grow up,” said Woodford, much like a towheaded child can grow into a dark-haired adult.

Bears can also change color, he says, as a result of rubbing themselves against trees.

“A brown bear can look red because it has rubbed off the guard hairs, or top coat, and what you see is the wooly undercoat,” Woodford said.

A brown bear’s typically lighter guard hairs against a darker undercoat is what creates the animal’s grizzled appearance — and explains why brown bears are often referred to as grizzly bears.

We are fortunate to be living among these brown bears, or grizzlies, said Woodford, who points to nearby Admiralty Island as having one of the highest densities of brown bears in the world.

In response to the possible disappearance of grizzly bears beyond our state’s borders, in 1948 conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote the following observation: “Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.”

We are already here, and gaining a better appreciation for the bears that live around us, and a greater sense of how varied they can be, is one of the messages Woodford hopes people take away from Friday night’s presentation.

“I think the people who will come Friday are interested in bears,” said Woodford, “and want the best for them.”