The brown bears of coastal Alaska have been recently regarded as comprising from one to three distinct genetic groups. We sampled brown bears from each of the regions for which hypotheses of genetic uniqueness have been made, including the bears of the Kodiak Archipelago and the bears of Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof (ABC) Islands in southeast Alaska. These samples were analysed with a suite of nuclear microsatellite markers. The ‘big brown bears’ of coastal Alaska were found to be part of the continuous continental distribution of brown bears, and not genetically isolated from the physically smaller ‘grizzly bears’ of the interior. By contrast, Kodiak brown bears appear to have experienced little or no genetic exchange with continental populations in recent generations. The bears of the ABC Islands, which have previously been shown to undergo little or no female-mediated gene flow with mainland populations, were found not to be genetically isolated from mainland bears. The data from the four insular populations indicate that female and male dispersal can be reduced or eliminated by water barriers of 2–4 km and 7km in width, respectively.