The 3 Largest Bears in the United States Are Massive Forces of Nature

kodiak vs grizzly
iStock.com/Jess Bray

Written by Patrick Sather

Updated: April 25, 2023

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Largest bears in the United States
The largest bears in the United States include the black bear, brown bear and polar bear.

There are eight living species of bear found around the world. In addition to these species, there are also numerous subspecies. These various species and subspecies have all adapted unique traits to help them survive different environments. You can find bears in a myriad of habitats, including mountains, plains, forests, woodlands, riparian zones, and swamps. No matter where they live, these bears possess a few traits in common, namely their incredible size and power. 

Although they used to live throughout the United States, bears now mostly live in remote habitats in rural parts of the country. Still, bears remain one of the most common and widespread large predators in the U.S. That said, exactly how large are these bears? Keep reading to learn more about these three massive bears in the United States.

The 3 Largest Bears in the United States

You can find three bear species in the United States: American black bears (also known as North American black bears), brown bears (also known as grizzly bears), and polar bears. Of these three, only black bears and brown bears live within the continental United States. However, the continental U.S. maintains a relatively small brown bear population, with most of the country’s grizzlies confined to Alaska. Similarly, all polar bears in the United States reside in Alaska or on islands off the state’s Arctic coast. Let’s take a closer look at the three bears found in the United States. 

Black Bears

black bear

As their name implies, black bears typically appear black or dark brown.

Historically, you could find American black bears (Ursus americanus) throughout the United States. Today, they primarily live in the Eastern and Western United States, the Great Lakes Region, and Alaska. Most American black bears live in mountain areas with heavy vegetation, but you can find them in a variety of environments, including woods, forests, swamps, and riparian areas. As their name implies, black bears typically appear black or dark brown. However, they can also appear cinnamon, blonde, or dark blue.

They possess short, curved claws well-adapted to climbing trees and straight-face profiles. American black bears are the smallest bears in the country. On average, male black bears weigh between 125 and 500 pounds and measure 4 to 6 feet long. Meanwhile, females typically weigh 90 to 375 pounds and measure 3 to 5 feet long. That said, adult black bears have the capacity to reach an enormous size. On rare occasions, they can measure nearly 8 feet tall and weigh in excess of 700 pounds. 

Brown Bears

Grizzly bears are by far the largest bears found in the continental United States

Grizzly bears are by far the largest bears found in the continental United States.

North American brown bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) are collectively known as grizzly bears. Also known simply as grizzlies, grizzly bears used to roam throughout the central and Western United States. However, habitat loss and overharvesting drove grizzly bears out of much of their native range. Today, grizzlies inhabit just a few areas of the continental United States. These include Yellowstone National Park, Western Montana, and Northwestern Washington state. By far, the largest population of grizzly bears lives in Alaska.

They predominantly look light or dark brown, although other color morphs exist. They feature silver or gray streaks in their hair, lending them a “grizzled” appearance, hence their name. Grizzly bears are by far the largest bears found in the continental United States. Female grizzlies generally weigh between 290 and 400 pounds. Meanwhile, males are substantially larger, with most weighing from 400 to 800 pounds. However, exceptionally large specimens can exceed 1,000 pounds. Most adult grizzly bears measure between 6.5 and 8 feet long, but especially large specimens can stand over 9 feet tall. 

Polar Bears

Polar bear leaving tracks on fresh snow.

Their small ears help them conserve body heat, while their large, partially webbed paws help them both to walk on snow and swim in the water. 

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is the largest species of bear in the United States. While most polar bears live within the Arctic Circle, a few thousand live along the Arctic coastlines of Northern Alaska. In addition to being the largest bear, it is also the most predatory. Polar bears eat an almost exclusively carnivorous diet consisting of seals, reindeer, fish, and small whales. To help them blend into their environment, polar bears evolved white fur. Their small ears help them conserve body heat, while their large, partially webbed paws help them both to walk on snow and swim in the water. 

Adult male polar bears can weigh anywhere from 770 to 1,500 pounds. Females measure around half as large as males, with most weighing between 330 and 550 pounds. In terms of length, most males measure 7 feet, 10 inches to 9 feet 10 inches long, while females measure 5 feet, 11 inches to 7 feet, 10 inches long. That said, particularly large polar bears can measure over 10 feet long and weigh nearly 2,000 pounds!

Kodiak Bear vs. Grizzly Bear

Large Kodiak bear

Even compared to grizzly bears, Kodiak bears measure exceptionally large.

Earlier, we mentioned that brown bears in the United States are known as grizzly bears. However, another population in the United States goes by a different name. This subspecies of brown bear is known as the Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi), or the Alaskan brown bear. Kodiak bears get their name from their geographic distribution, as they only live in Alaska’s Kodiak Archipelago

In terms of appearance, Kodiak bears appear very similar to grizzly bears. However, even compared to grizzly bears, Kodiak bears measure exceptionally large. Kodiak bears commonly weigh between 660 and 1,320 pounds. Some specimens can even weigh in excess of 1,500 pounds. This puts them in roughly the same size and weight class as polar bears. In fact, Kodiak bears rank as the largest subspecies of brown bear, and the second largest bears in the world after polar bears. Kodiak bears manage to reach their enormous size despite eating roughly the same foods as mainland grizzly bears. Experts believe that they manage to grow to such extraordinary sizes due to their exclusive location. 

The Largest Bears Hunted in the United States

Over the years, hunters have managed to harvest numerous massive bears. Unfortunately, we’ll likely never know about the largest bears that ever roamed the United States. Still, recent records contain plenty of examples of record-setting bear kills. 

Although black bears rank as the smallest bears in the United States, hunters occasionally stumble across massive specimens. In 2011, hunter Bruce Headly shot a whopping 829-pound bear in New Jersey. A few years later, fellow New Jersey native Jeff Melillo shot a 700-pound black bear, earning him the record for the largest black bear ever killed in North America with a bow and arrow. Hunter Coy Parton shot a record-setting bear in 1998 in Craven County, North Carolina. During a hound hunt, Parton managed to back a black bear weighing 880 pounds. However, when it comes to record-setting black bears, no other state boasts as many as Pennsylvania. Many of the largest black bear kills on record come from the Keystone State. The largest bears taken in the state include an 875-pound bear taken in 2010 and numerous bears over 700 pounds.  

Meanwhile, the largest bears ever caught in the United States were all grizzly, Kodiak, or polar bears. One of the largest Kodiak bears ever recorded ended up at the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, North Dakota. This massive bear, named Clyde, weighed nearly 2,130 pounds! Another giant Kodiak bear is on display at the airport in Anchorage, Alaska. This massive 10-foot-tall, 1,700-pound bear was killed by an unnamed forestry worker. However, the record for the largest bear ever caught in the United States belongs to a polar bear. The gargantuan bear was found in Kotzebue Sound, Alaska, in 1960. It stood 11 feet, 1 inch tall, and weighed approximately 2,209 pounds!

How Strong are Bears?

Bears are among the largest and most powerful predators on Earth. These incredible creatures range in size from the relatively tiny sun bear to the giant polar bear. While they vary in size and appearance, all bear species possess incredible size and power. Even the smallest bears can summon much greater strength than the strongest humans. After all, the average bear measures nearly 5 to 7 times stronger than the average human. A mature bear can knock over small trees and break the back of fully-grown elk. Bears also possess powerful bites. With a bite force of at least 975 pounds per square inch, grizzly bears can easily snap the bones of a fully-grown man.  

Are Bears Dangerous?

Due to their enormous size and strength, bears almost certainly pose a threat to humans. This is especially true for the largest bears in the world, such as the polar bear. Black bears usually shy away from human encounters. Their timid nature makes fatal encounters extremely rare. On average, black bears kill around one person every other year. Meanwhile, grizzly bears enjoy a more fearsome reputation. Grizzlies are much more likely to defend a food source or protect their young cubs. As a result, grizzlies kill approximately one person every year across the continent. 

If you encounter a bear in the wild, remember the expression, “if it’s brown, lay down; if it’s black, fight back.” While crude, the expression holds roughly true. When you encounter a bear in the wild, you should first slowly back away. If the bear pursues you, try to make as much noise as possible or make yourself appear larger to scare the bear away. However, in the event that the bear attacks, you should pay attention to its appearance. If you’re fighting a black bear, you should try to fight back. On the other hand, do not try to fight a grizzly or Kodiak bear. Instead, you should lay down and feign death. Hopefully, this will cause the bear to lose interest and leave you alone. 


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