Giant grizzly is one for some record books, but not Alaska's

craig@alaskadispatch.comMay 7, 2014 

Courtesy of Larry Fitzgerald and Boone and Crockett ClubLarry Fitzgerald took the biggest grizzly ever in a September 2013 hunt. Brown bears that live in coastal regions can be far larger.

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.

"Alaska bear largest to be killed by hunters,'' headlined The Spokesman-Review in Washington state.

"An Alaska hunter bagged a massive grizzly bear that has been certified by the Boone and Crockett Club as the biggest bruin ever taken down by a hunter,'' reported the New York Daily News.

Well, not exactly. There is no doubt that 35-year-old auto body repairman Larry Fitzgerald killed a nice trophy, but lost in all of the hullabaloo over his bear is the fine print that defines Alaska's record bruins.

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 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 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 276/16 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.

"You need a minimum of a 28-inch skull to even be considered in the (Boone and Crockett) book'' for record Alaska brown bears, said Gino Del Frate, a wildlife biologist with Fish and Game. There are about 500 such bears now in the book and more are added every year.

"About 10 percent of our annual harvest on Kodiak is over 28,'' said Larry Van Daele, regional supervisor for the Division of Wildlife Conservation. About 200 brown-grizzly bars are killed on Kodiak each year, meaning more than 20 bears bigger than Fitzgerald's each year come from that area alone.

A bear shot on the Kenai just last fall measured 29. Area biologist Jeff Selinger reported it appeared to be the largest bear shot on the Kenai since the 1960s. The biggest bear recorded on the Kenai went 294/16.

Big bears have been popping up with regularity in Alaska in the past decade, and there is speculation this might be related to global warming. Global warming has played a role in increasing the size of Alaska salmon runs. More salmon provide more food for bears, and the animals grow bigger.

Fitzgerald's bear was big, but were it seen standing next to the world-record brown bear with a skull measuring 3012/16, it would look badly outsized.

"It's notable, but ...,'' Del Frate said, "that's a grizzly bear.''

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 belonged to a dead bear, the carcass of which was found.

Fitzgerald was not returning phone calls Wednesday. There were indications he might now be the target of a media hunt, the news of his record bear having quickly traveled cross-country.

Earlier in the week, he told Fox that the kill was something of an accident. He was hunting moose near Fairbanks with a friend, stumbled on a fresh set of massive grizzly tracks, and in the best tradition of Alaska hunters, followed them down to make a kill.

There is no word on whether he ever got a moose, which is much tastier. Grizzlies are generally considered unfit to eat, but their hides make great rugs.

Reach Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.

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