There is no average bear

In many ways, we can stereotype bears based on their age, sex, and reproductive status. While watching bears and even interacting with bears, certain stereotypes are useful. They help us begin to understand and explain a wide spectrum of behavior exhibited by a group of intelligent animals.

To stereotype a group of bears, adult males who rank at or near the top of the hierarchy are probably the least likely to act like a kid. They are the least likely to play or show overt curiosity towards new things. For most of bearcam’s history (2012-present) we’ve watched bears like 856, 747, and 814 dominate the falls through their size and assertiveness. These bears showed little interest in other bears except when establishing or reaffirming their dominance, stealing fish (especially 814 Lurch), appropriating preferred fishing spots, or when seeking a mate. Their behavior framed (biased?) our expectations of bears at the top of the hierarchy. They acted like stereotypical dominant males, and in their own ways, average bears.

But this logic can only take us so far, because there are no average bears.

This past July 32 Chunk displaced 856 as the most dominant bear at Brooks River. Chunk is approximately 12-13 years old and is perhaps the largest bear to use the river regularly this summer. Much of his behavior, especially early in Brooks River’s salmon run, is typical of a big dominant male. Not only did he displace other bears, he also wasn’t successfully challenged for food or fishing spots.

Notice how 856 quickly vacates the jacuzzi and doesn’t even attempt to challenge 32 Chunk.

Initially, 32 Chunk fit our expectations of a dominant male, but over the past two weeks or more bearcam has captured Chunk play fighting with another large, and older adult male, 755 Scare D Bear, as well as scavenging fish from him.

Just what is going on? Has Brooks Falls gone topsy-turvy in the wake of this summer’s hierarchy shift? Or this something more akin to the peculiarities of individual bear behavior during a summer when salmon are plentiful?

In July especially, Chunk fit the stereotype of a dominant adult male—challenging and displacing other bears, marking trees and cowboy walking in full view of other large males, and courting females. Since then, he’s behaved in ways that do not fit the dominant male stereotype—waiting patiently downstream of 755 for scraps of fish (a behavior more akin to scavenging than begging) and even initiating prolonged play fights with 755.

Play among adult male bears in their early teens is uncommon, but not unprecedented. I’ve previously wondered if bears outgrow play, and my personal observations suggest the frequency of play decreases as bears age. (I’m more surprised by 755 Scare D Bear’s willingness to play-fight, something I’ve never witnessed from him, than from 32’s).

Chunk’s play behavior separates him from bear 856 who was the most dominant bear seen through the entire history of bearcam until this summer. 856, like 24 BB before him, was hyper-dominant. As far as I know, this term has never been formally described in the scientific literature about bears. Tamara Olson, one of Katmai’s former bear biologists, introduced me to it. As I understand the term, hyper-dominance in bears is a willingness to continuously assert dominance over other competitors, giving them no slack, no chances to gain an edge. 856 became the river’s most dominant animal in 2011, when he was about the same age as Chunk is now. Once 856 became more dominant than 814 Lurch, for example, he repeatedly approached and displaced Lurch, perhaps in an effort to remind his large competitor, “Don’t challenge me or infringe on my space.”

Perhaps a lack of other large males who can challenge Chunk has allowed him to exhibit more playful and less hyper-dominant behavior. The relatively high abundance of salmon at Brooks River this summer also influences how bears interact with each other. To add another stereotype to the mix, bears are generally more playful and more tolerant of each other when they are well fed.

Because of his rank at the top of the hierarchy, we expect Chunk to behave like more like 856 than a youthful subadult. However, no biological edict commands Chunk to fit our expectations. His bimodal behavior is uncommon among adult male bears of his rank. Yet, Chunk can play-fight with other bears and still maintain an exceptionally high rank in the hierarchy.

The average bear is an amalgam of our observations and conclusions, created to help us better understand the lives of bears. No single bear will ever fit this role completely. Chunk can be both playful and dominant. He is no anomaly, because the average bear doesn’t exist.

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.

A Close Encounter at Brooks River


Early today, bearcam captured a very close encounter of the ursine kind.

When the video begins, two people are walking out of the water in the direction of Brooks Lodge. A relatively small brown bear, probably a subadult, then begins to run towards them. Eventually, the bear gets very close to both individuals. Other than wading into very deep water, the couple had few options in this situation. Their only line of retreat was towards Brooks Lodge (the direction they were walking).

Screen shot of bear and person near each other. Text reads "Person and bear." The person and bear are in the yellow circle.

The bear could’ve approached the people for a few reasons. If the people were fishing and if they had a fish on their line, then this could have attracted the bear. If the bear had taken fish from anglers before, which happens at Brooks River, then it would be more likely to approach people as it searches for an easy meal. The splashing of their feet could’ve caught the bear’s attention. That’s a sound that mimics the sound of splashing fish, and for bears at Brooks River this is the sound of food. The bear could also have been attempting to play or assert its dominance.

The bear doesn’t look like it was charging the people defensively. Its bounds aren’t direct. In contrast to this bear, a charging bear moves very quickly in a straight line. Defensive bears, from what I’ve observed, do not deviate from their target until they decide to stop the charge.

There was one thing the couple could have done to reduce the chances of a scary encounter—stay together. Instead of walking 5-10 meters apart, they could’ve walked shoulder to shoulder. Size means a lot to a bear and bears are much less likely to approach groups of people compared to single people. Beyond anything else traveling in groups, especially groups of four or more people, is the most important step we can take to increase our level of safety in bear country. Most importantly, the couple could have not gone into that area.

People are permitted to be in that location, and often don’t consult rangers before doing so. However, I don’t necessarily place blame on them. Quite often, visitors are not aware how vulnerable they are in many places at Brooks River.

This is a place where people have a lot of freedom, maybe more so than any other well known bear viewing location in Alaska. The only area closed to people is the immediate area near Brooks Falls from June 15 to August 15. Situations like this don’t happen every day, but bears and people are often in very close proximity. I know many of us who watch the bearcam won’t visit Brooks Camp, but a few of us will. If you choose to visit, please consider ways in which you can minimize this type of encounter. I recommend staying on established trails and bear viewing from specific locations where bears expect to find people, like the wildlife viewing platforms. The river mouth often looks like a great place to be with its open sight lines. Yet, the depth of the water greatly limits where one can go to avoid bears. The river mouth from late June through July and again from late August through early October is wonderful habitat for bears. For this reason, everyone who visits Brooks Camp should consider not going into this area. This provides a higher level of safety for us and greater opportunities for bears to access the resources they need to survive without our interference.

Despite my best intentions over the years, I still got much too close to bears when I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings, when I traveled into a spot where sight lines were limited, or when I was in an area where bears were likely to feed or rest. Close encounters will happen, but there are ways we can minimize the risk.

  • Watch bears from trails and the wildlife viewing platforms.
  • Avoid moving into areas where bears are likely to rest, play, or feed.
  • Give yourself two avenues of escape to avoid an approaching bear.

Related Posts:
Giving Bears Space
The Challenges of Managing Bears and People at Brooks Camp

End of an Era

The bear hierarchy is fluid. Bears jostle constantly within it, gaining and losing rank as they grow into adults and age into older bears. In 2017 at Brooks River, one bear has asserted his dominance over all others in ways he’s never done before. There appears to be a new dominant male on the river and he’s known as 32 Chunk.

bear standing in grass

32 Chunk in early June 2017. Photo courtesy of Katmai National Park.

In 2011, I began recording interactions between bears at Brooks Falls, noting who displaced who, who avoided who, and which bears were courting, stealing fish, and playing together. Out of hundreds of interactions I witnessed, one bear was consistently and clearly dominant over all others, 856.

bear standing in water

856 stands in Brooks River on June 30, 2016.

From 2011 to 2016, 856 wasn’t displaced once. I only noted him yielding on very rare occasions, like when he faced a particularly defensive mother bear. No other bears even seemed to challenge him. 856 ascended to the top of the hierarchy rather quickly in 2011, outcompeting other large males like 814 Lurch and 747, and for many years remained the river’s most dominant bear.

two bears facing each other in water

856 (right) displaces 747, another large adult male bear, from the jacuzzi in 2013.

Life at the top of the hierarchy is difficult, however. Other bears are subordinate, but not subservient, to more dominant animals. If injury, illness, or age weakens a dominant bear then others will not hesitate to usurp their position, gaining greater access to food and potential mates. Other bears, often younger and stronger, are more than willing to take your spot if given the opportunity.

In the video above, 856 is the bear in the jacuzzi (the plunge pool below Brooks Falls) while 402, an adult female, stands on the lip. Notice how 856 turns to face the bear approaching from the far side of the river. This is 32 Chunk.

Screen shot from video. Three bears near a waterfall. Text reads "402," "856," and "32 Chunk."

856 backs out of the jacuzzi to avoid 32 Chunk. He then goes to the lip where 402 stands, but 32 Chunk follows. Above the falls, 856 makes no attempt to challenge Chunk. 856 stands and watches as 32 turns away from his competitor, like dominant bears are apt to do, and walks out of the frame.

Generally, when two bears of approximately the same size and disposition meet for the first time, both bears posture openly as they evaluate each other’s size and the potential to do physical harm. 856 yielded quickly and readily to 32, so they have encountered each other before the video above was recorded. During a previous encounter 32 Chunk may have asserting his dominance even more clearly, hence 856’s willingness to yield. 856 simply saw 32 approach and instantaneously realized he could not challenge the larger 32, so he backed away to avoid picking a fight he probably wouldn’t win. (Many, if not most, interactions between bears are like this. They are defined by avoidance.)

bear standing in water and facing the right side of the photo

32 Chunk in 2014, while he ranked in the middle of the bear hierarchy for adult males.

Nature abhors a vacuum. No niche is left unfilled within the bear hierarchy. 856, perhaps weakened by injury or age, appears to no longer be the most dominant bear at Brooks River. His younger competitor sensed weakness and exploited it. This isn’t a contest of longevity though. During his time as the most dominant bear, 856 had free reign over the best fishing spots and went unchallenged for access to females in estrus. For years, he grew large and strong, probably siring more than one litter of bear cubs along the way. Now 32 Chunk (and possibly other bears like 747) hold those advantages.

856 remains a large bear and his size will continue to allow him great access to fishing spots at Brooks River. Bears grow up quickly, gaining the strength and skills necessary to survive a harsh, competitive world. Eventually though, the competition catches up.

When Mother Bears Collide (Again)

Last summer, 128 Grazer and 409 Beadnose found themselves face to face in defense of their cubs . Recently on bearcam, they had another dustup. This one was unique and included elements I had never observed before.

When we ask, “Why did that bear behave like that?” we should ask two additional questions.

  • Was the bear motivated by food or potential access to food?
  • Was the bear motivated by sex or reproductive success?

Biology can be distilled simplistically into two categories: food and sex. Adequate nutrition is necessary for survival of the individual, and since bears hibernate throughout much of the year they are particularly motivated by food. Reproduction also drives bears to behave in particular ways. We should also consider how each bear’s disposition influences their behavior.

128 Grazer
As a young adult bear, 128 Grazer became very skilled at fishing the lip of the falls. She’d compete for access to that spot with several other adult males and females. As a single bear (i.e. no cubs), she was fairly tolerant of other bears in close proximity. After 128 became a mother in 2016 though, her behavior became increasingly defensive. She didn’t shy away from confronting larger adult males in order to protect her cubs .

Still caring for three yearlings in 2017, she seems to be just as protective and wary as last year.

409 Beadnose
In contrast to Grazer, 409 Beadnose is an experienced mother who has weaned three litters (her current batch of yearlings is her fourth known litter). Beadnose can be defensive too, but tends to avoid confrontation more often than 128. While Grazer visited the falls with her spring cubs last summer, 409 did not. This is a clear behavioral change for Beadnose, because she visits the falls frequently when she’s not caring for cubs.

two bears standing in shallow water

128 Grazer (left) and 409 Beadnose are familiar with each other and often use the same areas to fish.

Now both of these mothers are raising yearlings, both have returned to Brooks Falls, and both tend to fish the same places (the lip or the far pool). Most importantly, both are competing for the same resources in order to successfully raise their cubs—leading to situations like this.

Can this apparent snafu be explained by a motivation for food or reproductive success? When the video begins, 409 Beadnose is ascending the hill. 128 Grazer is the blonder bear standing under the spruce tree. Grazer refuses to yield to Beadnose’s approach. The bears jaw and growl at each other, while 128’s yearlings remain in the spruce tree above their mom.

screen shot of bears beneath spruce tree

Beadnose seems compelled to get up the hill and skirts Grazer. There are other routes available, but she sticks with this one.

screen shot of brown bear on hill near spruce tree

Grazer’s cubs eventually come down from the tree while Beadnose lingers in the forest nearby. Something keeps Beadnose from moving farther away, but at this point we can’t see her.

bears standing on his near river

With 409 still on the hill, Grazer and cubs move down to the river. Shortly afterward her yearlings react to something in the same tree they had just climbed down from. Grazer begins to jaw pop, a loud and distinctive warning noise. We can see movement in the spruce tree above.

four bears standing in river near a steep embankment

It’s one of Beadnose’s cubs.

four bears standing in river. Yellow circle surrounds bear in tree. Text reads, "409 yearling"

Grazer and her yearlings scramble up the hill just 409’s yearling tries to climb down. Now we understand why Beadnose didn’t give Grazer more space previously and why Beadnose remained in the forest near spruce tree—one of her cubs was in the same tree as Grazer’s cubs! This is something I never witnessed before, cubs from two litters in the same tree at the same time.

409 is mostly out of sight as 128 and cubs run up the hill. 409’s yearling though, is unable to get out of the tree.

Two bears climbing a hill. Yellow circle highlights a bear in a spruce tree. Text reads, "409 Yearling"

A short stand-off ensues. 409’s yearling remains in the tree, 409 stands not far up the hill, and 128 Grazer and yearlings remain close by.

Screen shot of bears on hill in vegetation. Yellow circles highlight location of bears. Text reads, from top to bottom, "409 yearling" "409 Beadnose" "128 Grazer"

When 409’s cub tries to climb down again, Grazer reacts and charges to the base of the tree.

screen shot of bear standing on hill near river

Grazer then climbs the tree, forcing Beadnose’s yearling back up. About ninety seconds later, 128 has moved farther away, which allows 409’s cub to climb out of the tree and rejoin its mother.

This interaction between Grazer and Beadnose was unique because cubs from two different litters were in the same tree at the same time, greatly complicating a situation where the families could’ve avoided each other. The interaction was ordinary however, because both Beadnose’s and Grazer’s behavior seemed to be motivated by an urge to protect their cubs. Grazer’s defensiveness is easily triggered and she must’ve viewed the 409 yearling as a threat, which in my opinion led her to chase it back up the tree. Beadnose may have realized Grazer was willing to physically fight in this situation. This could’ve deterred Beadnose from standing next to the tree under her cub. At the beginning of the video, Beadnose also couldn’t get her cub out of the tree with Grazer’s cubs still in it. Stuck in a Catch-22, Beadnose seemed to choose a more cautious tactic: move slightly away and wait.

Motivation for food or reproductive success explains quite a lot in biology, but not all bear behavior can be explained so simplistically (why would a bear play with her foot? ). The prolonged interaction between these families however, does fit one of the biological motivators. This interaction probably wasn’t hierarchical; that is, it wasn’t about asserting dominance for access to food and mates. It was about protecting offspring. In other words, it was about reproduction.

Bear Courtship

Bearcam is back! While brown bears fishing at Brooks Falls are the cam’s main attraction, bears also engage in another important event—courtship. Bears make new cubs at this time of year.

Courtship is a conspicuous part of bear life in spring and early summer. Sometimes a male bear encounters a female bear at the right time and they copulate immediately, but more often bear courtship is a prolonged affair. From an ursine perspective, courtship is a process in which a male follows a female in estrus, habituating her to his presence until she is ready to mate.

large bear (right) follows smaller bear through grass

A large adult male, 856 (right), follows 708 Amelia while she was in estrus in 2013.

Courting pairs are easy to recognize by the male’s conspicuous and persistent behavior. A male bear recognizes an estrous female by her scent. He then walks behind her, shadowing her movements like he has a laser sight affixed to her rump (hormonally, the simile may not be far from the truth). However, bear courtship contains neither romance nor effort from the male to attract the female. He’s simply biding his time.

Copulation takes place only when the female is ready, which may not be for days. (The longest courtship I ever noted at Brooks River was 10 days.) It’s certainly not uncommon to see a male following a female for hours and hours.

Over those hours and days, the male follows her, guarding his access for the opportunity to mate. If another male of equal or greater dominance catches the female’s scent, then the two males may engage in a violent fight. Male testosterone levels peak, not coincidentally, in June as well. In late spring and early summer, fresh wounds on dominant adult males may be battle scars from a fight for access to a female bear. Bigger can be better in the bear world.

large bear with wound on cheek sitting in water

In June 2015, 814 Lurch returned to Brooks Falls missing an ear and with a large wound in his right cheek. These wounds could have been received during a fight with another male over access to a female.]

The victor continues his slow pursuit until the female decides the time is right. Outside of the mating season, male bears pose real threats to smaller females (sometimes, albeit very rarely, killing them) so the close, persistent proximity of a large male must be alarming at first. Eventually, hormones and habituation to the male overcome her initial trepidation.

Even then, the female may not be ready.

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Copulation lasts upwards of twenty minutes. Brown bear females are promiscuous and may mate with more than one male. Her estrus cycle isn’t a single event. She can have several over the mating season, which generally runs May through July. Female black bears may be induced ovulators, so brown bears could be too, and while no evidence of multiple paternities has yet been confirmed at Brooks River, a single litter of cubs could have multiple fathers.

mating bears

218 Ugly mates with 402 at Brooks Falls in 2010.

If mating is successful, the fertilized egg divides only a few times before entering a state of arrested development in the mother’s uterus. Only after she enters the den in the fall will the blastocyst begin to grow again. Through this delayed implantation, female bears can focus the rest of their summer efforts gaining enough fat reserves to survive hibernation. This allows cubs to be born in mid-winter when they are most protected in their mother’s den.

Over the next few weeks on bearcam, watch for male bears to doggedly follow single females. This is the most conspicuous sign of bear courtship, a season is marked by competition, conflict, persistence, and the promise of another generation of bears at Brooks River.

Of Bears and Bicycles

bear tracks on dirt road. bike wheel in right foreground.

Sometimes bears like to use roads as much as people, giving new meaning to the “share the road” concept.

While enjoying a quiet bicycle ride on a remote road you surprise a large animal in the brush. A split second later, you realize the seriousness of the situation, because you didn’t surprise just any animal. You surprised a bear. Would you be prepared to respond appropriately? What can cyclists do to reduce risky bear encounters?

Some of North America’s most amazing cycling destinations are located in bear country—Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachians, Cascades, and Sierra Nevada, and the Great Lakes region. I’ve lived, worked, and cycled extensively in bear country and I love it. I’ve commuted by bicycle at Yellowstone National Park. I’ve toured in the Appalachians, Rockies, and Cascades where bears are frequently seen. When I worked at Katmai National Park, Alaska, I had hundreds of encounters with brown bears, and I frequently saw them while riding the park’s Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road. Each experience taught me to fear bears less and respect them more. Cyclists can safely enjoy riding in bear country, but there is risk involved. However, the risk is manageable with the right knowledge, prevention, and preparation.

bear walking on dirt road through forest

Cyclists need to be prepared for bear encounters. I found this bear walking toward me while I pedaled the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road.

Cycling in bear country creates two main issues. First, bicycles are usually quiet and often travel at high speed increasing the possibility of surprising bears. Secondly, many touring cyclists prefer to camp, and while camping isn’t the problem, if you’re camping in bear country then the good campsite you found is often located in good bear habitat.

Warning noise is one of the easiest precautions to take in bear country. Given enough notice, many bears will avoid people. Noise is not a safety net though, just a preventative measure so you don’t surprise a bear. It must be made appropriately and for the right reasons. It’s especially useful in areas where visibility is limited, and it’s easy too. Use your voice or a loud bike bell. Those cheap bear bells may save your vocal chords for campfire songs later in the evening, but they aren’t nearly loud enough in most situations to adequately warn bears. More importantly, bears may not identify any bell’s sound with people. You need to make noise to warn bears of your approach and identify yourself as human. No bell is as effective as the human voice. It’s no fun to shout all day, nor is it an action that fits well in all settings, so vary the amount of warning noise as necessary.

If you need an excuse to slow down during a ride, bears can be it. Excessive speed was one of the main factors that led to a fatal mauling of a mountain biker in Montana. Ride cautiously where bears are frequently seen, avoid biking during hours when bears are less likely to expect encounters with people, and pay attention to your surroundings. On the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road, a road that averages less than five vehicle trips a day in summer, I’m forced to ride slowly because too many bears use it to allow for a purely fitness ride. This is torturous for certain cyclists, myself included on occasion, but bears necessitate it. If I want to ride responsibly here, I must slow down.

Take the time to assess the terrain. Are you approaching the crest of a hill, a sharp bend, or is the road carved through thick brush? Will you be traveling through areas with food sources, like berries or salmon, that attract bears? This may seem like a mental burden that will cause a headache by the end of the day, but cyclists practice this risk assessment all of the time. While riding in traffic we identify and respond to unsafe situations routinely. Bears pose different challenges than cars, I realize, but trust your instincts. Slow down and give yourself time to use them.

Bear walking on dirt road through forest.

This bear in Katmai was intent on using the road. To safely avoid a stressful encounter with him I stopped, picked my bike up, carried it off of the road and well into the forest to let the bear pass. Had I been traveling too fast, I would have risked surprising the bear at a very close range.

black bear walking on dirt road through forest

I let this black bear in North Cascades National Park know I was human by talking in a normal tone of voice. Once the bear realized I was human, he walked calmly into the forest.

Statistically speaking, groups of four or more people are very safe in bear country. So if the thought of encountering a bear alone is too intimidating, then join a group ride and stay close together. Group size is not effective if the group is spread so far apart that a bear only recognizes individual persons. Groups tend to be noisier and have lots of eyes to spot wildlife. Plus, during a bear encounter, a mass of humanity is intimidating to even the biggest bear.

With that being said, what should you do during a close encounter? Things can get complicated quickly and adrenaline will certainly rush, so prepare yourself mentally before you leave home. The key, according to Tammy Olson, a former wildlife biologist for Katmai National Park, “is to not behave in ways that are likely to be perceived as threatening when responding to a [defensive] bear at close range.”

How close is too close? The answer depends on a variety of factors (the presence of cubs, the vicinity of food like animal carcasses, the bear’s human-habituation level and disposition, surprise, and more). There are general recommendations to follow, but each bear is an individual and each situation is unique. A Yellowstone grizzly shouldn’t be treated like a Pennsylvania black bear. Talk with local officials about the general patterns of bear use and behavior in the area you plan on traveling through. Some areas, especially national parks, have regulations that define the minimum, legal distance to keep between yourself and a bear (50 yards at Katmai, 100 yards at Yellowstone, and 300 yards at Denali). These can be a useful, but not absolute, starting point to determine if you are too close. As a general rule, if you are altering the bear’s behavior, then you are too close.

Any time you find yourself in close quarters with a bear, stop riding and take a few seconds to assess the situation. Position your bicycle between you and the bear. As well as possibly adding a modicum of physical protection, the bike makes you look larger in a non-threatening way. Size matters in the bear world. This is why groups of people are generally safer in bear encounters than a lone person.

If you surprise a bear while bicycling, quickly assess the situation. What is the bear doing? Is it resting, feeding, approaching you, or showing signs of stress? Do you see or hear cubs? Is the bear vocalizing? Were you charged? Your behavior in these situations goes beyond the scope of this post, but what you see, hear, or think the bear is doing will influence your decision on how to react. (Please see the references at the end of the post for more information on bear behavior, identification, how to differentiate between defensive and predatory encounters, and the recommended responses.)

When you’re on a bike, you’re moving swiftly and you have less time to react than someone who is walking. This is more likely to provoke a charge from defensive bears, especially grizzly bears. If a bear charges you in a defensive, non-predatory situation, it is usually a bluff. Even so, this is a frightening experience. Hold your ground. Running or pedaling away may trigger the bear to chase you, and you can’t outrun a bear. Keep your bicycle with you if possible. Abandoning the bike, especially if there’s food in your panniers, can teach bears to approach people for another food reward.

Yelling at a defensive bear may provoke it further. Instead, talk to the bear calmly and back away slowly until the bear resumes its normal behavior (resting, feeding, traveling). Contact is rare, so only play dead if a bear makes physical contact with you. If it does, lie face down and cover your head and neck with your hands and arms. Remain still and quiet until the bear leaves the area. (Black bears attacks are very rare, but are much more likely to be predatory, so most bear behavior experts recommend you fight back if a black bear attacks.)

Sometimes you may see a bear before it is aware of you. If this happens, move away quietly the way you came and give the animal the room it needs. Find an appropriate place to observe it, where possible, and enjoy the moment. It’ll certainly be one you won’t forget.

Your goal should be to prevent close encounters. This is just as important when camping as it is when riding. At the end of a long day of bicycle touring, is there anything more satisfying than a beautiful campsite with a hot meal? Maybe not, but before you commit yourself to that wonderful campsite, take a few moments and search for signs of previous bear activity. Is there garbage scattered about from previous campers? Is the campsite near natural food sources that attract bears? Do you see fresh bear scat with human food or garbage in it? If so, consider moving on. You don’t want to risk a food conditioned bear coming into your camp at night.

Bicycle handlebars leaning against tree. Bark has bear fur attached to it.

Look for signs of bears like scat, tracks, and marking trees when you choose a campsite. Move on if the area seems to be frequently used by bears. The bear fur on this marking tree indicates plenty of bruins use the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road.

Most problems with bears while camping can be avoided if bears aren’t attracted to your campsite in the first place. Outside of developed campgrounds, cook and eat well away from your sleeping area (at least 100 yards). This is a Leave No Trace principle everyone should follow, but it also disperses food odors away from your sleeping area.

Consider where and how you plan on preparing your food in the backcountry. Are hot meals important, or would cold dinners and snacks suffice? Eating cold meals and eliminating the need to cook is one easy way to substantially reduce food odors around your camp. There is less to clean and less garbage at the end of the day. If you choose to cook then consider meals that require little field preparation. Touring cyclists don’t normally carry and cook perishable, odorous items like bacon, but anything strongly scented or should be avoided.

Before you leave home, decide how you will store your food and other odorous items like soap and toothpaste. Bear resistant containers (BRCs) are the best and most portable way to keep bears from your food, and in some areas they are required. BRCs lack creases or hinges that allow bears to open them. Yes, they are heavy and bulky, but their effectiveness has been proven repeatedly and backpacking-style BRCs normally fit into a large, rear pannier. The most common alternative, hanging food in a tree, is time consuming and risky. Some bears, especially in the Sierra Nevada, have learned to ignore BRCs but specialize in stealing food hung in trees. Occasionally, developed campgrounds in high bear use areas provide food storage facilities as an alternative to BRCs, but many do not.

Lastly, some people prefer to carry a bear deterrent like bear spray (not self defense spray) or firearms. Neither firearms nor bear spray are 100% effective against bears. I carry bear spray since it is non-lethal, non-toxic, and easy to use. It is intended only for close encounters (generally 30 feet or less) on aggressive or attacking bears. This stuff is potent too, so be careful. I know enough people who have accidentally discharged their bear spray to know you don’t want it in your face or in your pants, as one unfortunate individual at Brooks Camp discovered. Wherever you choose to keep it, bear spray needs to be quickly accessible. When necessary, I carry bear spray in my bike’s handlebar bag. (Thankfully, I’ve never had to use mine.)

There are many bear deterrents, but the greatest of all is your brain. No matter what you do in bear country, where you ride, or what you see, there is no substitute for common sense. We empower ourselves with safe cycling practices in traffic, and we can do the same around bears. The scenario at the beginning of the article isn’t fiction. It happened to me, and it’ll probably happen again. Traveling in bear habitat requires responsibility. Sloppy habits and dirty campsites can endanger future visitors and the lives of bears.

I always look forward to bicycling in bear country, which is some of the most scenic and inspiring land imaginable. Knowledge of and respect for these animals can turn what would be a dangerous and fearful encounter into the highlight of the trip. Given the opportunity, humans, bears, and even bicycles can coexist.

More Bear Safety Information

You can never know too much about bears, but an action appropriate in one region may not be appropriate in another. Talk to local officials about what works and is expected in their area. There is also plenty of contradictory information available about bear safety available online. The information provided in the resources below generally follows the consensus of leading bear biologists and public land managers. Besides learning behavioral techniques that may keep you safe and give you peace of mind, learning about bears and their ecology is fascinating and can open up a world of wonder into their complex lives.

Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee: The IGBC was established in 1983 to help ensure recovery of viable grizzly bear populations and their habitat in the Lower 48 states.

Leave No Trace: The seven guiding principles of LNT ethics not only reduce our impact on the outdoors, but also correlate to the best camping practices in bear country.

Yellowstone National Park Bear Safety Pages: These may be the most comprehensive bear safety pages on the web.

Get Bear Smart Society: This organization is dedicated to reducing conflicts between bears and people.

Bear Attacks: Their Cause and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero: This is not your typical bear attack book. It written by a wildlife biologist who has statistically analyzed bear attacks across North America. It offers scientifically supported advice for travelers in bear country.

Backcountry Bear Basics: The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters by Dave Smith: Although less academic than Bear Attacks, this is another readable, common sense look at bear identification, behavior, avoidance, safety, and it includes a brief section on mountain biking.

Staying Safe in Bear Country: If there was just one resource you could choose to educate yourself on how to behave around grizzly and black bears, this video is near the top of the list. In a no-nonsense fashion, it clearly and accurately explains bear behavior and how people can minimize the chance of bear encounters and attacks. It also provides insightful footage of bear behavior that may be hard to visualize. A transcript is available too.

Bears Have Long Memories

Mother bear standing on rock. Her cub sits on the rock between her legs.Bear cubs are apt to reflect mom’s mood. When she’s relaxed, they are relaxed. When mom is alert and stressed, her cubs are on edge. Cubs also take a keen interest in anything that their mother investigates. In this way, they learn much about what to eat, where to find food, and many other survival skills. In this way, mother bears are teachers. However, mother bears may teach their cubs behaviors that lead to conflict with humans.

In a study recently published in the journal PLOS One, researchers from the University of Alberta found that behavior that leads to conflict with humans is not genetic. It is learned. Bears who were raised by mothers with a documented pattern of conflict with humans were more likely to be involved in conflict with humans as adult bears. The study identified 213 bears (118 males and 95 females) through DNA extracted from hair samples, then examined behavioral patterns in both father-offspring and mother-offspring relationships. The researchers concluded over 60% of offspring from “problem mothers” were likely to be “problem bears.”* In contrast, only 29% of bears from “problem fathers” were identified in bear-human conflicts. This was very similar to the percent of bears (30%) involved in bear-human conflict raised by mothers with no history of conflict with people. Since male bears have no role in raising cubs, the evidence in the study suggests that behavior leading to conflict with people is learned, not inherited through genes.

If you watch Katmai’s bearcams, you may be familiar with the escapades of 273 and her cub. These bears are famous for their curious and playful nature. Over the past two summers, they were prone to investigate almost anything that caught their attention. In 2015, they damaged buildings at Brooks Camp which prompted rangers to escalate their hazing techniques to deter them.

Tar paper shack surrounded by portable electric fence.

This building was damaged by 273 and cub in August 2015. I helped to erect the electric fence as a temporary deterrent to further damage.

They repeatedly damaged a sign near the bridge over Brooks River.

They caused wildlife technicians to photo-bomb a live chat on archeology.

They even played with unattended construction equipment.

I took the video of 273 and her cub with the construction equipment from inside a cabin last summer. Clearly, this family has demonstrated an interest in human objects and equipment. They are also relatively habituated to the presence of people. Since 273 has exposed her cub to people and buildings, does this increase the likelihood that the cub will repeat those behaviors when he becomes an independent bear? All signs point to yes.

I’ve long suspected that bears raised by highly human-habituated mothers are more likely to demonstrate high levels of habituation toward humans when they are adults. I’ve also suspected the same with bear-human conflict. If mom teaches her cubs to investigate human equipment or seek out human food, then the cubs are going to remember those experiences when they become independent bears. The study from Alberta provides some evidence to support my suspicions.

Does this mean that 273’s cub is destined to damage property at Brooks Camp? Not necessarily as long as rangers, lodge staff, and visitors at Brooks Camp are vigilant and actively work to eliminate conflict between bears and people. (Access to lots of natural food is extremely important too.)

Mother bears are teachers and cubs are students, but not everything cubs learn from mothers is advantageous in a world where habitat is increasingly crowded with people. Mother bears teach their cubs many survival skills, some of which can lead to conflict with humans. We can’t change the way bears live, nor should we. The onus is on us to act in ways that allow bears space to live and survive without learning behaviors that lead to conflict.


*I discourage the use of “problem bears” as a term to describe bears involved in bear-human conflict. The term was used in the study, but this label stigmatizes bears in negative, anthropomorphic ways. These bears are only exploiting opportunities presented to them. The problem isn’t the bear. The problem is the temptations for conflict provided or caused by people.

Strut Your Stuff

In my last post, I broke down an interaction between two mother bears, one of whom was particularly defensive. Bears though don’t always charge and threaten violence to make their point. As this video illustrates, bears communicate through body language to establish dominance and avoid conflict. (Warning: Long Video.)

In the video, 747 is the heftier, darker bear. 68 is the tall, lanky bear. Both are mature adult males, likely in the prime of their lives. As I see it, bear 747 comes out of this on top as he asserts his dominance over the newcomer, 68. This took some time, however. 68 didn’t exactly yield like most would upon the approach of 747.

As the video starts, 747 (left) immediately approaches the newcomer on the island. 68 subtly skirts 747, but continues his approach toward the falls. You can see that 747 is much bulkier than the newcomer, but the new bear is just as tall, if not taller.

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747 (left) approaches 68 on the island downstream of Brooks Falls.

When 747 turns his back on the new bear, 68 takes the opportunity to mark some grass (0:50). 68 is not acting submissive or yielding.

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After a brief do-si-do, 68 (left) marks grass while 747 does the same.

The new bear approaches 747. 747 stands and watches. At this point, the outcome is very much undecided (1:12).

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68 (left) approaches 747.

After a little more posturing, 747 turns to mark the willow on the island. This is a bold display of dominance in front of 68. The newcomer though continues to cowboy walk away from 747, still not submissive but very focused on 747’s movements (2:00).

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747 marks a willow tree while 68 postures nearby.

747 follows the exact same route on the island as 68, probably following the newcomer’s scent and leaving his own on the way (2:20). 68 postures more in the grass. 747 again marks the tree. This time for almost 30 seconds (3:18).

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747 says, “This is my turf.”

747 then goes to the grass where 68 just was and rubs it on his body. He seems to want to leave a scent trail everywhere his competitor has (4:05).

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747 (center) marks the grass where 68 had just walked.

68 walks downriver. 747 follows. In the riffles, 747 catches up to him. Instead of fighting, the bears posture more. Here’s where 747 seems to assert his dominance more clearly. 68, instead of posturing further, stands in the riffles and watches 747 approach then walk away (5:00).

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747 pursues 68 downstream.

The video cuts to a moment a few minutes later when 68 makes his way back to the island. This draws 747’s attention and he approaches 68 again. 747’s ears remain upright and forward, a sign of dominance in this context. The new bear’s ears are oriented back against his head, a sign of defensiveness (6:40).

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747 (left) directly approaches 68 one last time. Note the bears’ ears. 747’s are pitched forward like he is not intimidated by 68.

747 circles 68. 747 walks away and the newcomer stands and watches, indicating that 747 successfully asserted his dominance in the interaction. 747 then goes back to the island and marks the vegetation again (7:05). 68 continues to stand and watch. Winner: 747.


747 is one of the largest and most dominant bears at Brooks River.

During encounters between adult male bears, the “winner” is the bear who ends the interaction, usually by walking away. This is exactly what 747 did. (Exceptions are when bears compete over a resource they want like food, a fishing spot, or access to a female. In those cases, the dominant bear stays where he wants, displacing the subordinate bear who usually moves away.)

Any time a new bear arrives at Brooks Falls, my interest piques. Newcomers are often wildcards. They may or may not know how to fish the falls and must weave their way into the river’s hierarchy. 68 was never identified at Brooks Falls in July. I didn’t recognize him when he arrived. He seemed to show some familiarity with the falls area and wasn’t particularly wary of other bears. When 747 saw the newcomer I thought, “This could get interesting.” It did, just in a non-violent way.

68 and 747 communicated their intentions clearly through posturing and marking vegetation. Throughout the entire video, these bears get very close to each other, but never make physical contact. Both want to hold high places in the hierarchy, because dominance confers many advantages. Through a continued, confident approach and more exaggerated posturing, 747 asserts his dominance over the newcomer. This is a classic, albeit lengthy, example of bears using body language to communicate their intentions, avoid physical conflict, and establish dominance.

For more information on Katmai’s bears, download the latest edition of Bears of Brooks River: A Guide to Their Identification, Lives, Identification, and Habits.

When Mother Bears Collide

What happens when two mother bears, both with spring cubs, meet?

Defensiveness is a trait of all mother bears. In the video, 128 Grazer is the blonde bear with three spring cubs, and her defensiveness is immediately evident. She jaw pops and salivates as 409 approaches.

Mother bear standing near cubs at base of a tree.

128 Grazer stands next to her cubs. Her excessive salivation is a sign of stress.

Meanwhile, 409 shows no signs of aggression. She probably just wants to get to the river and fish. Her two cubs are behind her.

Bear standing in grass.

409 Beadnose stands the in grass right before Grazer charges.

128 charges 409. If you listen carefully, you can hear one or both bears utter a low bellow.

Two bears with open mouths in grass.

Beadnose (left) and Grazer (right) face off as Grazer stops her charge just short of contact.

409 stands her ground (unlike an adult male who encountered a charging 128) likely because she’s protecting her cubs too. 409’s cubs climb separate birch trees. Now both sets of cubs are up trees. The mother bears can’t go far in this situation.

Bears in grass with cubs in trees.

Beadnose and Grazer face one another while their cubs remain in nearby trees.

The situation de-escalates quickly, which is not uncommon in encounters between bears. 128 then moves back to the tree holding her cubs. Beadnose slowly approaches the river then turns toward her cubs, almost like nothing happened. Both mothers keep watchful eyes on the other.

bears standing at the edge of a waterfall

409 Beadnose (left) stands near 128 Grazer on the lip of Brooks Falls in 2015.

Last year, these bears were extremely tolerant of each other. Cubs change the dynamic though. As a new mother, 128 behaved particularly defensive around bears and people in late June and early July. Beadnose’s relatively calm disposition may reflect her greater experience raising cubs (this is her fourth litter) and her high tolerance for certain bears like Grazer. Perhaps Grazer’s aggression is a product of her inexperience. This is her first known litter.

The bears’ experience and disposition factored into the interaction. Each encounter between bears (and bears and people, for that matter) is unique. Defensiveness is one possible reaction when mother bears collide.