Alaska Wildlife

Alaska has a wide variety of wildlife, on land, sea and in the air, that makes it truly unique. In fact, this is one of the most popular reasons people come to Alaska. ADFG Animal photos

You may see moose in town, in Anchorage. Some people even call it "moose town". You could encounter a brown or black bear in Anchorage, too. There are also many eagles around, although not as many as in communities to the south or north. One of the attractions is the sea life in Cook Inlet, which includes beluga whales. The best place to view them is at Ship Creek, just five or ten minutes walking distance from downtown. Occasionally orcas are seen, since they feed on belugas and salmon, but the shallow waters of Cook Inlet limit their migration. Ship Creek also has the distinction of being a place where business people can leave their office for lunch, go down to the creek and catch a twenty or thirty pound salmon, then return to work without leaving town. That's during the season, of course.

These are wild creatures, however, so they do not appear on command. There is no guarantee that you will see them. But somehow it seems that newcomers, or "Cheechakos" are especially likely to see them during their first visit, perhaps out of the kindness of a compassionate northern spirit.


This grizzly sow with two cubs crossed directly in front of our bus, at Denali National Park(June 2000)

Land Animals

Alaska has three different resident species of BEAR. Polar bears are found only above the arctic circle and are not likely to be seen without deliberate effort (and expense) to get to them. The Alaskan brown bear is very large, up to 1,500 pounds for a mature adult male, and is found along coastal areas. Inland the brown bear often exhibits a slightly different color and is generally called a Grizzly. The black bear is more numerous. All three are considered dangerous and should not be approached for photographic or any other reasons. This is especially true when there are young bears nearby. Never place yourself between a mother bear and her cub. Much more information is available through a wide variety of sources on what to do when you encounter a bear. One point they all agree on is that you DO NOT RUN! This stimulates the bear and increases the likelihood you will be chased. You may view a live grizzly safely at the Anchorage city zoo.


Another large land animal in Alaska is the moose. There are about 155,000 moose in Alaska. There are an estimated 2,000-2,500 of them in the Anchorage bowl area. Some people consider them to be more dangerous then a grizzly, in terms of the probability that you will be attacked. Again, it is important to keep your distance. Moose are the largest member of the deer family. Moose are plentiful in the winter months and may often be seen on city streets and in the yards of residents. When spring comes, snow melts, and trees regain their leaves moose will be more difficult to find. The cow moose will disappear in the woods with her new calf and not be seen for months. As with bears, never get between a cow moose and her calf. Also, these are wild animals and it is unsafe to try and feed them. Maintain a safe distance from them.

Dall sheep are often seen just a short drive south of Anchorage in the summer. If you get up early enough before there are lots of vehicles on the road you could see them right on the side of the highway, at about milepost 106-108.

Musk ox are found in the northern half of the state, and can be seen at the musk ox farm in Palmer or the agricultural research center for the University of Alaska, in Fairbanks. The name is misleading since it is not an ox and there is no musk odor ordinarily, so the eskimo name "oomingmak" (the bearded one) is preferred. Musk ox weigh in the range of 600-800 pounds, and there are an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 of them living in Alaska today. The Alaska musk ox was severely reduced in numbers so that in 1930 there were 34 Greenland musk ox brought to Fairbanks, then to Nunivak Island. Their undercoat of very fine qiviut is valued for making warm garments. Both male and female musk ox have horns. Note that the musk ox is not a member of the deer family, and they have horns, not antlers.

Caribou are found as far south as the Kenai Peninsula. They are essentially the same animal as reindeer, rangifer tarandus. This is the only animal in the deer family in which both the male and the female have antlers. Huge herds can be seen on the haul road during their migration period. They are also plentiful in Denali National Park.

Antlers are fast growing, have multiple points (are tree like), shed annually, and usually very tall. Horns are slow growing, permanent, have a single point, are much thicker relative to their height, and do not usually branch (antelope is an exception). Cervidae (moose, elk, caribou, reindeer, and deer) have antlers. Bovidae (sheep, goats, muskox, bison) have horns. Usually horns are found on both sexes, while antlers are found only in the male (caribou is the exception). Many Alaskan animals have claws, and only a few were selected for examples. Far fewer have tusks, but the Woolly mammoth was a notable one for its huge tusks and is listed even though it is extinct in Alaska today. It is notable that several of those on the list were hunted to extinction in Alaska, but live here now because they were reintroduced from somewhere else. They lived as indigenous species in the past. These include elk (Olympia, Washington-1928), muskox (Greenland-1931), bison (Montana-1928), and reindeer (1892). Since tusks vary in number the number of tusks normally found on the animal is listed as well.

Alaskan Antler Horn Tusk Claw
Caribou (m,f) X
Reindeer (m,f) X
Moose (m) X
Elk (m) X
Sitka Deer (m) X
Dall sheep (m,f) X
Mtn. goat (m,f) X
Muskox (m,f) X
Bison (m,f) X
Walrus (m,f) (2) X
Narwhal (m)(1) X
Stejngerís whale (m)(2) X
Wooly Mammoth (2) X
Black bear X
Grizzley bear X
Polar bear X
Eagle (talon) X

Wolves are found throughout Alaska, and have been re-introduced to the Kenai Peninsula.

There are deer and elk in parts of south eastern Alaska, Kodiak, and Afognak, but these will not be seen around Anchorage or the Kenai Peninsula except at a wildlife farm near Portage Glacier. There are an estimated 350,000 Sitka deer in those very limited areas, and their numbers change considerably with environmental conditions. The bag limit for hunters can vary from none to as many a six during the hunting season, depending on their populations.

Now for a trivia question... which is the largest land animal found in Alaska today? It's not the moose (1,500 lbs.), polar bear or brown bear (about 1,400 lbs each) it is the American bison, at 2,000 lbs! The bison was once the most abundant large mammal in Alaska, although it was a variety called the Wood Bison. In 1928 there were 23 bison brought from Montana and released in the Delta Junction area. By 1996 this number had increased to more than 1,000.

One interesting point is the number of animals that were once found in the wild in Alaska that had to be re-planted here due to their extinction or near extinction. The bison and muskox are just two examples.


These sea lions were part of a larger group on a rock seen from a cruise boat in Seward (June 2000)

Creatures of the Sea

For most people this means whales! Alaska has lots of whales in the summer months; belugas, orcas, and humpbacks may be seen within easy travel distance from Anchorage. In fact, you may see belugas and orcas right off ship creek. Other sea mammals in the area include sea otters, seals and sea lions, although you will need to head down to Prince William Sound (site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill) to get a good look at them.

If you are interested in edible sea life there are great clamming beaches on the Kenai Peninsula.

The walrus is another large sea animal, found near Kodiak, in Bristol Bay and at locations along the Aleutians. They have two long tusks that distinguish them from all other sea animals. There were also sea cows in Alaska, the Stellar Sea Cow, which were plentiful when Vitus Bering first arrived in Alaska in 1741. Within 27 years of their discovery by Europeans they were extinct.

Resurrection Bay

Many birds may be seen from the boat in Resurrection Bay, around rocky structures like this(June 2000)

Bugs and Birds

Some will tell you that the mosquito is the state bird in Alaska. Not so, the state bird is the Willow ptarmigan. Oh, then the mosquito is the state insect, right? Wrong again. The state insect is the dragonfly. So you may be wondering by now just which symbol the mosquito represents. The answer is "none". The mosquito is the subject of many Alaskan tales, but has not been adopted as a state symbol for anything. For example, mosquitos get so big in Alaska they must request clearance from the control tower before they are allowed to land. There are 40 species of mosquitos in Alaska. Fortunately, no diseases are communicated by the Alaskan mosquitos. That does not mean that they cannot harm you, however. Mosquito infestation in the interior is so intense that pilots are required to include mosquito head nets in their survival gear in aircraft flying in Alaska. It may likewise seem to be fortunate that only the female mosquito bites... but that is quite enough! The best news is that mosquitos are not a problem year 'round, only during the summer months. So if you visit Alaska in April or May, just before the tourist season, one challenge you won't need to worry about is mosquitos.

Birds in Alaska arrive by migration from other places so that there is a wide variety to be seen, depending on the time of year and where you are looking. A great place for bird watching near Anchorage is at Potter Marsh, just south of town. Also, West Chester Lagoon, near the beginning of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is a great place to watch birds. All along that trail you can encounter different habitat and accordingly different kinds of birds. If you are interested in bird watching be sure to bring your binoculars.

Eagles are sometimes seen sitting in trees along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. They are also seen at times around town, particularly near lakes where other birds are nesting, such as University Lake.

Denali National Park & Mt. McKinley-
Denali National Park information
More Denali, with Photos
Still more Denali

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© September 1999 - Clyde E. Pearce