There is no question that Alaska is Bear Country, where all three species of bear native to North America make their home. The vast expanses of wilderness and rainforest climate create the perfect environment for more than 135,000 bears. While black bears are the most prevalent, with an estimated 100,000 in Alaska, they primarily live on the Alaskan mainland and their population is not concentrated in the state. The smallest population is that of the polar bears, with an estimated population of less than 5,000 that remain primarily along the arctic shores in the Northern parts of the state.
But the bears that are generally most associated with the Alaskan wilderness are the brown bears, which are large grizzly bears. Alaska is home to almost all the brown bears in the United States and 70% of the brown bear population in North America. The brown bears that call the Southeast regions of Alaska home are believed to be descendants of the polar bear who have adapted to living in the rainforest climate provided throughout this part of the state.
Unfortunately, with so many bears calling the state home, encounters with humans are inevitable. Through legal hunting practices, accidents, and other natural events, bear cubs become orphaned and cubs cannot survive long without their mothers. This has necessitated the practice of euthanizing many orphaned cubs over the years simply because there was no other way of dealing with this problem. This provided the inspiration that Les and Evy Kinnear of Sitka needed to find a better solution of handling these helpless baby bears.
Beginning in 2002, the couple worked to fund and support a new habitat for orphaned baby bears called Fortress of the Bear. They began by transforming the old pulp mill in Sitka into a baby bear habitat where orphaned bears could live and be taken care of. The non-profit endeavor started with a simple goal, to find a better way of dealing with orphaned brown bear cubs so that there was on option other than euthanasia. It has grown into the largest bear rescue facility in the country that provides a unique educational opportunity and can’t-miss tourist attraction in addition to protecting and tending to the bears in their care.
Fortress of the Bear isn’t like a zoo or other animal attraction. Each bear habitat was created from a large repurposed clarifier tank that provides three-quarters of an acre for the bear’s habitat. Orphaned bears are housed in the habitats where they are raised in a safe and enriching environment. Visitors to the center can view the bears from elevated platforms where the bears can be observed and photographed being fed, playing, and interacting with each other. Guide educators provide information and back story details for each bear including how it came to the center.
Being able to view the bears in this type of setting provides excellent educational and research opportunities. The founders hope these experiences will enable the Fortress to not only provide safe haven for orphaned cubs but it will also assist state and federal agencies in working together to develop better alternatives to this issue than euthanasia.