Moose, Puffins, and Bears, Oh My: Alaska’s Amazing Animal Residents

 

Alaskan wildlife is diverse and majestic. The animals that call our state home aren’t often seen in the Lower 48 (or elsewhere in the world), which is why nature enthusiasts enjoy paying us a visit.

Few places share the abundance and range of our wildlife populations. Over 1,000 vertebrate species are found here; more than 900,000 caribou roam across our vast tundras; we host over 430 species of birds, including the largest bald eagle population in the nation; and Alaska has a front row seat to spectacular migrations, including the great spawning migration of salmon and the Porcupine caribou migrations.

Whether we look to land, sea, or skies, Alaska’s wildlife is varied and celebrated. But some of our most iconic residents are the brown bears, moose, and puffins:

Brown Bear

Alaska has no shortage of bears. We’ve got black, brown, and even polar bears, but we have quite a reputation for our large number of brown bear species. Alaska accounts for 98 percent of the total US brown bear population. These include the Alaskan brown bear, Dall Island brown bear, the grizzly bear, Kodiak bear, and the Ursus arctos sitkensis. Lake Clark National Park is known for its bear sightings, especially near Chinitna Bay, which is more concentrated than any other area in the park.

 

Brown bears are usually very large and sport prominent shoulder humps, small ears, and long, straight claws. They consume a variety of foods, including salmon, berries, grasses, sedges, cow parsnip, ground squirrels, carrion, and roots. Some also hunt moose and caribou (and drop in on human campers that haven’t stored their food supplies properly). Although generally solitary, they do gather at common feeding areas like salmon spawning streams or sedge flats.

 

Brown bears typically live along the southern coast of the state where they have access to salmon, an array of tasty vegetation, and a milder climate. Grizzlies tend to populate the northern and interior parts of the state. The animals aren’t threatened, and therefore are subjected to regulated hunting to maintain a stable population.

Moose

The Alaska moose are the largest of the North American moose subspecies. Adults range from 800 to 1600 pounds and can grow to 6 feet tall. They range in color from golden brown to black and are easily recognized by their colossal antlers, carried only by the males. The antlers develop within their first year and are produced every summer thereafter. A male’s antlers are usually largest when they reach 10-12 years of age.

Moose inhabit Alaska’s boreal and mixed deciduous forests ranging from the Stikine River in southeast Alaska to the Colville River on the Arctic Slope. They’re especially abundant on the timberline plateaus along the major rivers of Southcentral and interior Alaska, as well as in recently burned areas with willow, aspen, and birch shrubs, on which the moose feed. We’re home to about 225,000 individuals of this species, and moose are regularly hunted in order to keep the population in check. The moose is a solitary animal, only coming in contact with others during their mating season in autumn and winter.

To catch a glimpse of these impressive creatures, you have a few options. Among them is Moose Pond, aptly named because these animals are frequent visitors to this particular spot. For the best chances of a spotting one, arrive early in the morning or an hour before sunset.

Puffin

Both horned and tufted puffins live in Alaska, and they’re easy to identify due to their colorful beaks, stout bodies, and webbed feet. Puffins are built for swimming underwater and use their wings to propel them and their webbed feet for maneuvering. They’re capable of flying, though they generally don’t do it well. They feed in flocks, mostly on fish and zooplankton.

Puffins spend much of their time in the open sea and only visit land to breed, usually in May. In Alaska, they breed on coastal islands and headlands from Forrester Island in southeastern Alaska to Cape Lisburne on the Chukchi Sea Coast. Kenai Fjords National Park is a top choice for individuals looking to catch a glimpse of these birds. Horned puffins are more prevalent farther north than tufted puffins. Puffins nest underground, digging burrows into steep hillsides or, at rockier sites, nesting cliff faces. Most birds spend the winter far offshore in the north Pacific Ocean. Puffins are abundant in Alaska and nesting colonies are protected by federal and state laws.

In the rest of the nation, more than 400 species are threatened or endangered, whereas here we have only 20. Alaska’s large land masses, limited development and near-pristine environmental conditions have made it a sanctuary, keeping animals safe and healthy even as populations dwindle elsewhere.