Every once and a while a video from Brooks Camp goes viral. The latest involves a mother bear, her two spring cubs, and a person on the trail to the Brooks Camp Campground.
I’m a little late to opine on this video, but most of the responses and explanations (even Katmai’s, which explains what to do fairly well) seem to lack information about the bear’s behavior. Why did the mother bear and her cub approach the person?
The mother bear in the video is known as 435 Holly, an adult female who was first identified in 2001. This bear has led a storied life so far, successfully caring for her injured yearling in 2007 and adopting an abandoned yearling in 2014.
She’s also one of the most human habituated bears known at Brooks River. (Habituation, in this context, is a waning response to a neutral stimulus.) As a result, this bear is not as likely to react as defensively towards people compared to many other bears. Holly frequently uses the developed area from the river mouth to the campground, often traversing the area near Brooks Lodge, the NPS visitor center, and employee housing. She’s even treed herself near the bathrooms at Brooks Lodge and approached large groups of people.
The ranger handled this particular situation well, gathering the group of people together to let the bears pass. Corralling people isn’t easy though. Despite the best efforts of rangers, some people are always willing to push the limit with bears.
On more than one occasion, I watched Holly walk down “Park Avenue” in front of my cabin, sometimes to avoid other bears and sometimes just because that was the easiest way to get where she was going.
Her behavior demonstrates a relative tolerance for people. She’s not shy about using the same trails as us, which brings me back to the viral video. 435 Holly has encountered many, many people at Brooks River and humans have largely been a neutral stimulus in her life. These factors enable situations like these to happen on a regular basis at Brooks River.
In the viral video, neither Holly nor her cubs show signs of stress or defensiveness. She doesn’t lower her head, her ears remain upright, and she makes no vocalizations. Holly’s cubs reflect their mother’s relaxed state, casually walking with and occasionally in front of mom. They know a human is near and as he backs away, she continues in the same direction. Holly, in this situation, wanted to use the trail. She did not threaten the person or act in a defensive manner.
Of course, there was real risk involved during the encounter and my thoughts should not be misconstrued to downplay the risk. Any encounter with a bear, especially a mother and cubs, needs to be taken seriously, for our own safety and also for the welfare of the animals. If this was different mother bear, with different tolerances and reaction distances around people, then the situation could be different.
This doesn’t mean the person on the trail would be mauled, however. At Brooks River, females with cubs who are not habituated to people are likely to be displaced from the river during periods of high human use, and we shouldn’t approach bears just because they’ve shown tolerance towards us in the past. In areas where bears need more individual space it is even more important to prevent close encounters.
This encounter with 435 Holly and her cubs was the result of a very human habituated bear needing to use the trail at the same time as a person. Her motivation, in this particular case, wasn’t a need to protect her cubs, assert dominance over a person, or even curious approach. It was simply to walk on the trail.
For information about what to do in encounters like this at Brooks Camp, please see Katmai National Park’s video response. That response however, is not usually applicable to bear encounters in other areas of North America.