Brown bears are the largest predator on mainland Norway, but these animals are not considered to be dangerous towards humans. There are around 160 – 180 brown bears in Norway, and they are considered incredible rare and extremely shy.
We will look closer at the majestic brown bears of Norway in this article, and take a deep-dive into their role in the Norwegian ecosystem, how dangerous they are considered, and how to act if you meet a brown bear in the wild.
The bears in Norway are Eurasian brown bears
There are two species of bear in Norway, with the other being the polar bear. The polar bear is only found on Svalbard, so the brown bear is the only bear species that you will find on mainland Norway. So let’s forget about the polar bears for a minute, and rather focus on the Eurasian brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos).
Eurasian brown bear is found in all over the northern hemisphere with Russia having about 50 % of the population, and US and Canada having around 25 %. The final 25 % of the population is scattered around other countries in Asia and Europe.
While the Eurasian brown bear is a cousin to the grizzly bear, the brown bear is much shyer, and the Scandinavian population are especially shy and scared of humans.
For the rest of this article, I will write brown bear or simply just bear instead of Eurasian brown bear.
Brown bears in the wild
The Norwegian brown bears are very shy, and research experiments have shown that they are super good at detecting humans from far away by smell and noise. By using GPS collars on the bears, the researchers observed that the brown bears always ran away in the opposite direction of humans when they got closer than 1 kilometers.
In other words, the likelihood of meeting a brown bear in the Norwegian forest is very low, and they will always try to run away from you if they smell or hear you.
The diet of the Norwegian brown bears are mainly roots, bilberries, plants, nuts and ants. Ants and bilberries are by far the most important food for them.
The brown bears of Norway are not really hunters, but will enjoy a carcass if they come across it. They might also hunt some calves from moose or deer, or kill badgers and other small animals that get too close. The same goes for sheep, which I will get back to later in the article.
Bears spend most of their time looking for food, and as you can imagine, it takes a lot of bilberries to make a grown bear full. Studies have shown that an adult brown bear can eat upwards of 90 liters of bilberries during a single day in the autumn!
Bears can survive in pretty much any ecosystem in Norway, but the Norwegian bears are only found in forest regions where there are very few people and infrastructure.
Where to find brown bears in Norway
The brown bears in Norway are all found in the border regions towards Finland, Sweden and Russian. They are found in 5 distinct areas, but male brown bears are able to travel between these territories or even to other areas.
The five brown bears territories in Norway are (from north to south):
- Pasvik in Sør-Varanger in Finnmark.
- Anárjohka close to the Suomi border.
- Inner Troms.
- Lierne in Nord-Trøndelag.
- Finskogen in the eastern part of Innlandet, in areas close to Koppang, Rena etc.
It is very rare for brown bears to be found outside of these territories. This has to do with the fact that the females tend to stay in their own territory (which is rather small), while the males will want to be close to the females.
However, males will roam far to find females, so they can occasionally show up far from any bear territory when migrating. Some people find this scary, but the bears will soon move onwards.
The graphics below show where all observed brown bears in 2021 were.
You can clearly see a pattern, so you won’t need to think twice about meeting a bear if you’re outside of the dotted areas.
It’s also important to mention that the brown bear population is very low with only 160 – 180 individuals! They are super rare, and you are highly unlikely to meet one even if you are traveling in the brown bear territory area.
What to do and how to act if you meet a brown bear
As mentioned above, meeting a brown bear in the wild is highly unlikely since they are shy creatures that will run away from conflict if they are able to. That said, there will be some people who come across a bear in the wild. This might be because of the direction of the wind that makes the bear unable to detect you far in advance.
If you do meet a brown bear in Norway, the best course of action is to make yourself known to the bear, then slowly back away.
Talk to the bear in a loud, but non-threatening way. This is to assure that it’s aware that you are close to it. Then slowly just walk away from it.
Norwegian brown bears do not attack humans, so you are completely safe when you walk away from it. Don’t be tempted to run, as this will only increase your chances of falling down (which is safe, but probably very scary).
There have only been a few recorded bear attacks in Scandinavia (not counting the polar bears on this one), and they have all been from sick or injured bears, or from bears who defended themselves. The latter point were all bears who had been shot by hunters, but survived the first shot and were hungry for revenge.
Some people think it’s a good idea to feign death, but consider this: the Norwegian brown bears do not attack or eat humans. However, they do eat animal carcasses. So is it really a good idea to lie down and pretend to be bear food instead of just acting like a non-threatening human?
Read more: The dangerous animals of Norway explained.
Meeting a female brown bear with cubs
It’s also worth noting that things can get a bit scary if you meet a mother with cubs. She might do a fake charge to try to scare you. Her strategy is to make you scared of getting closer while also giving the cubs a few seconds to run away and hide. This fake attack can be super scary, but she won’t really attack, so it’s actually considered very safe.
If you ever meet a female brown bear with cubs, also try to make sure that you are not somehow in the middle between her and her cubs. This can potentially get her to become very protective, and is one of the very few situations where she might actually attack for real.
The conflict between farmers and the brown bear
Norway has a long tradition of free ranging sheep where the farmers let their sheep roam free in the mountains or in the forest during the summer and early autumn. While this is a great way to let the sheep graze on unfenced land, it does open up a lot of potential for conflict.
The wolves are the biggest cause of conflict, but the brown bears also cause some headaches for farmers with free ranging sheep.
While the brown bears aren’t much of predators, a big fat sheep is a very easy prey, and makes for some nice food. There have been some examples of bears that have killed dozens of sheep during a single night, which is obviously not a lot of fun for the farmers.
The conflict has lead to a type of agreement between the government and farmers where the brown bear is only allowed to be within a certain “bear zone”, and that it can be hunted if it migrates outside this zone.
So the endangered brown bear is absolutely hunted in Norway. You can’t just go and hunt it like most other animals, but you have to follow a strict set of rule. The type of hunt for brown bears is called lisensjakt (license hunting), and it’s based upon preemptively killing the brown bears before they are able to cause damage to livestock. Only a few bears are hunted yearly, and the exact number varies from year to year.
There is always a big debate about this in Norwegian society (and it’s even more of a heated debate when it comes to wolves, but we’ll get back to that in another article). Typically farmers want to keep the brown bear population as low as possible, while regular people do not want the farmers to hunt an endangered species.
Browns bears in zoos in Norway
If you want to see a brown bear while visiting Norway, your best bet is to visit a zoo. There are a few different zoos that have brown bears in Norway:
Bjørneparken: Bjørneparken can be translated to Bear Park, and has 4 different brown bears that are all easy to get a good view at. You can visit Bjørneparken in a small town called Flå, just a few hours away from Oslo. Read more about Bjørneparken by clicking here.
Namsskogan Familiepark: Namsskogen Familiepark is a somewhat small zoo in the Namsskogan town in Trøndelag. Their brown bear called Odin weights over 300 kg, and is considered one of the biggest brown bears in captivity.
Polar Park: Polar Park is the northernmost zoo in Norway, located in Bardu. This is a small town between Narvik and Bardufoss. The cool thing about Polar Park is that they have a total of 9 different brown bears, and you can usually always spot at least a few of them.
Wild bear safari
There are several companies that offer wild bear safaris in Norway, and these are a great method of seeing a brown bear in the wild. While you are far from guaranteed to see a wild brown bear, these safaris can increase your chances by a huge amount, and it’s probably the best strategy for seeing a wild brown bear while visiting Norway.
You can go on a wild bear safari in either Finnskogen, Lierne or in Pasvik. Most companies who offer these safaris are small family or single person businesses.
The history of brown bears in Norway
Norway used to be filled with bears a few hundred years ago, and these were a big threat to farmers who had livestock. To reduce this problem, the government put out a bounty on all brown bears, so any hunter would get paid money to kill a bear.
The bounty was actually pretty high during the 19th and 20th century, and many people made it their profession to hunt bears and other predators that provided a bounty. This lead to a total brown bear population decimation, and hundreds of bears were killed each year.
This kept going until there were only around 130 brown bears left in Scandinavia. At this point the political movement had changed towards a more sustainable model where the farmers were to co-exist with wild animals, so the bears were finally protected by law in 1973.
The huge hunting pressure on the population also lead to a selection pressure on the brown bears as a species. Over time only the shyest and most scared bears survived the hunters, so the the entire population that exist today is essentially all descendants from these shy bears. This is the main reason shy Norwegian brown bears are extremely shy compared to other bear populations.
Since the legal protection the brown bear population has been increasing, and there are over 2,800 brown bears in Sweden and around 1,000 in Finland. This is a lot more than the 160 we got in Norway, but the total Scandinavian population is getting a lot healthier.
Frequently asked questions about the Norwegian brown bears
How many brown bears are there in Norway?
There are around 160 brown bears in Norway.
Are the Norwegian brown bears considered dangerous to humans?
The Norwegian brown bears are generally extremely shy of humans, and there has not been recorded any unprovoked attacks in the last century, so they are not considered dangerous. They do not think of humans as prey or food.
Do you need bear spray when hiking in bear territory?
No, there’s not need to bear spray in Norway. No one uses this, because the Norwegian brown bears simply don’t get close to human hikers.
Should you hang your hiking food up in the trees to prevent bears from stealing it?
There is no need to hang your food up in trees, because the Norwegian brown bears are way too shy to get close to a camping site to steal food. The only animals that might potentially steal food are red foxes and badgers, but these are not dangerous to humans.
Nicklas is the owner and editor of The Norway Guide, and is responsible for most of the content on the website.
He lives in Skien, Norway with his wife and two children. Nicklas is specialized in Norwegian ecology (including Norway’s geology, wildlife and flora) from his degree in Ecology And Nature Management at University of South-Eastern Norway, but has a particular interest in tourism and content creation.
His biggest hobbies are fishkeeping, going on hikes with his dog, and rooting for the local football team.