Polar bears, Kodiak bears, grizzly bears, black bears—hunters have taken some giants over the years. Ever wonder where the biggest bears come from? Here’s the lowdown on where the biggest bears are likely to be found. Some of the locations will surprise you.
Bears are some of nature’s most fascinating creatures. I am sure there are many reasons why so many people have more than just a passing interest in them. Who hasn’t been lying in a tent at night when a strange noise suddenly brings the thought of a bear to the front of their consciousness? There are four species of bears in North America, and all of them have killed people; some more than others. That’s just one of the reasons why people get an adrenaline surge when they encounter one.
Most bears, of course, won’t hurt you. But they could, and that’s enough. Black bears are the most common bear by far, and a tiny fraction of encounters with black bears have ended with an injury. Contrast that to the polar bear, most of which live out their entire lives without ever seeing a human. To a polar bear, anything that moves is potential food. Both subspecies of the brown bear, the Kodiak and grizzly, are dangerous creatures, though not so much as the polar bear.
In some areas, these bears get really big—like as-big-as-a-Volkswagen big. That interests hunters who crave the difficulty of taking the premier specimens of any given species, and it interests those who just thing big bears are amazing creatures. We all seem to be fascinated by things that get really big.
The biggest bears have some things going for them. First, they have to live in near-perfect habitat; second, they need to grow old enough to reach peak size; and third, to become a world-record size, they must hit the DNA lottery. They need the right genetic code to grow to outsized proportions. Let’s look at the biggest bears of all four species that have been shot by hunters or found and entered into the Boone and Crockett Records. We can learn some things about where the largest of each of these species can be found.
Boone and Crockett scores bears by measuring the size of the skull, an accurate way of judging a bear’s size. Some bears may weigh more than others, but generally the bears with the biggest heads are the biggest bears. The score is simply the greatest length added to the widest portion measured in sixteenths of inches.
Kodiak bears (also known as Alaskan brown bears) are a subspecies of brown bear and are only found on the Kodiak Archipelago in Alaska. The biggest brown bears come from Kodiak Island itself. While bears are found on many islands off Alaska and the Alaskan peninsula, 17 of the top 25 Alaskan brown bears were taken from Kodiak. The world record was bagged by Roy Lindsley in 1952. Its score is 30 12/16. It’s the largest-scoring bear of any speices known. The skull is now owned by the Los Angeles County Museum. The largest specimens of brown bears commonly weigh more than half a ton, which is a predator that will make the knees of the most seasoned hunter shake.
The second- and third-place bears were also taken on Kodiak. Erling Hansen took one in 1961 that scored 30 11/16 and Fred Henton took one in 1938 that scored 30 9/16. Henton’s bear was the world’s record until Lindsley’s harvest overtook it in 1952. The most recent bear in the top 25 was bagged by Thomas Stago in Uyak Bay, Alaska in 2012.
Grizzly bears are another subspecies of brown bear. But while Alaskan brown bears live on the coast, grizzlies live inland and over time have adapted to the the unique environments they live in. These adaptations have led to smaller bears. North American brown bears that aren’t shot in coastal areas are considered grizzlies, and their recorded sizes show it. Seventeen of the top 25 grizzlies were taken in, you guessed it, Alaska. Seven were taken in British Columbia and the remaining one was taken in the Yukon.
The largest Grizzly bear skull on record was not taken by a hunter, but was found dead near Lone Mountain, Alaska by Gordon Scott in 1976. It scored 27 13/16. The largest taken by a hunter, a 27 6/16 giant, was shot by Larry Fitzgerald in 2013 on the Totatlanika River, Alaska. In third place is Rodney Debias’ 27 3/16 bear shot on the Unalakleet River Alaska in 2009.
Big grizzly bears are being shot every year in Alaska and British Columbia, and a new world’s record could show up at any time.
Black bear hunting is popular across the United States and Canada. About half of US states offer black bear hunting, and with an expanding population nationwide, five states have added bear hunting seasons in the last decade. There are more to come. Alaska ranks high in producing giant black bears as well, led by the islands in the Pacific Ocean just off the state’s southeastern coast, but the most consistent producer of giant black bears is not what you would think. Twelve of the top 25 black bears in the record book came from Pennsylvania. Wisconsin comes in second. As stated earlier, a big bear is the result of two main aspects: excellent habitat and age. Both states have a mix of farm crops and big woods that create ideal bear habitat.
Wisconsin and Pennsylvania take a very different approach to their bear hunting, but these approaches seem to lead to the same end. Wisconsin issues a very limited number of bear tags to hunters. It can take a decade to draw a tag in Wisconsin, but the success rates for those with tags is fairly high because both hounds and baiting are allowed.
Contrast that to Pennsylvania, which issues tags for anyone that wants one for a small fee. But because the most successful methods of hunting bears (hounds and baits) are not allowed, most bears in the state are shot incidentally by deer hunters. To some degree, bears are shot when large groups of hunters get together and make large drives through blocks of timber. The success rate normally runs around two percent for bear hunters in Pennsylvania.
Despite all this, the largest black bear skull on record came from a dead bear found in Sanpete County, Utah in 1975. That animal scored 23 10/16. The largest bear killed by a hunter was shot by Robert Christian in Monroe County, Pennsylvania in 2011; it scored 23 9/16. The second-largest found dead was discovered in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania and given to the state Game Commission in 1987. It scored 23 7/16.
The polar bear is the largest land carnivore in the world. A lot of bears have a nasty reputation, but polar bears back it up. More people have been killed and eaten by polar bears than by all other bears combined. The opportunity to hunt a huge polar bear has been turned upside down in the past couple decades. That’s not to say that you can’t shoot a huge polar bear because all adult polar bears are huge by bear standards, but the areas that produce the biggest ones are off-limits except to indigenous Alaskans.
All of the top 25 white bears and more than 90 percent of all Boone and Crockett record book bears have been shot out of coastal Alaska. Most of them have been shot out of Kotzebue, with the Diomede Islands area a distant second place. Only indigenous natives are allowed to hunt these bears. It stands to reason that subsistence hunters are not looking for bears with big skulls, and if they shot one of record-book size, the odds that it would be entered would be low. All of the top 50 in the record book were taken before 1968. The world record, taken by Shelby Longoria, was taken off the coast of Kotzebue in 1963. It scored 29 15/16. Will there ever be a 30-inch polar bear entered in the record books? Not in the foreseeable future.
There are, however, opportunities to hunt smaller polar bears. In fact, the polar bear population has expanded in the past decade across its range. Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut offer excellent bear hunting, but they rarely reach the Boone and Crockett minimum of 27 inches. There is a catch in this scenario, too: non-Canadian residents are not allowed to take their bears across the border into the United States or any other country. You can hunt a polar bear and take photos (and even have it mounted), but you can’t bring it home. That’s a significant roadblock to many people who have an interest in hunting this bear, which can only be taken in the most harsh and unforgiving conditions imaginable.
There has been significant effort by several parties and organizations to change this odd situation. Time will tell if it ever changes. In the meantime, there are a lot of bears in storage and on display at sporting goods stores, airports, and museums that may someday be allowed out of the country so they can go home to the hunters who bagged them.
Follow Bernie’s bowhunting adventures on his blog, bowhuntingroad.com.
Images courtesy Boone and Crockett Club