Viral Bear Encounter with 435 Holly

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.

brown bear standing in grass near water

435 Holly in September 2015.

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.

Bear near group of people. Arrow pointing towards person who is separate from group.

It’s not a wise move to leave the safety of your group when a mother and cubs is only feet away.

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.

6 thoughts on “Viral Bear Encounter with 435 Holly

  1. When I saw the video I thought, “What would Ranger Mike say?” I was very disappointed that this man didn’t do what was taught at bear school and was getting applauded for his poor decision. I thought about other people who will be doing the same once they get there. I was pretty upset about it that I wrote a long reply to the viral video but ended up deleting it after I felt silly/weird (that I will have to interact with whoever replies to my comment). Thanks for giving your two cents on this.

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  2. It pays to pay attention in Bear School, no matter what park you visit, as indeed I can attest that things can differ from park to park (and from animal to animal, as I’ve seen many people not behave safely around other wildlife like bison in Yellowstone, for example and many of them are also habituated). Hopefully folks who can use the insight here will read and heed. Thanks Mike.

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  3. Thank you for this comment. One of the chatters (can’t remember who) was there at the same time that this video was made. He said that this person showed poor judgment several times and the he even had to physically prevent the videographer to go into a more dangerous situation. I am so glad that this was Holly and not 128.

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  4. Thank you for the explanation for Holly’s (435) behavior. Although all of us on Explore knew the background of Holly it is a shame that the other reports did not reflect same – what if it were another female and cubs who was not as tolerant as she. He could have run into Grazer. Don’t think anyone could backed up fast enough – DUH!

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  5. I did comment on a couple of the Facebook pags that posted the video. It got me so mad that he did not do what he was taught to do. When I was there last September, 94 and cub were approaching the LR bridge. We were taught not to stand on the bridge, yet a jerk stood there, leaning on the gate while the bears walked by. The ranger had asked him to get off the bridge and he refused. She had to leave him there to protect herself. Everyone who witnessed it was furious because if something happened because of his stupidness, the bear would be destroyed. Luckily nothing happened. He was a day visitor, so I’m not sure if the rangers did anything to him. I hope they fined his arse!

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