The Bears of Brooks Falls: The Book

I first traveled to Brooks River within Katmai National Park in early May 2007, and today it’s hard for me to imagine my life without it.

On the morning of my first flight to Brooks Camp (which is only accessible by boat, plane, or a very long, boggy, buggy, and rough cross-country hike), fellow rangers and I hauled our clothing, equipment, and months of food to the floatplane docks along Naknek River in the small town of King Salmon, a sprawling community surrounding an airport and mothballed U.S. Air Force base. We were excited and enthusiastic to begin the adventure, but few of us, I believe, truly understood what we were getting ourselves into. I certainly didn’t. Not quite a greenhorn when it came to wild areas, I had never experienced a landscape like this.

Immediately after takeoff, I gazed out the window of our small plane, my eyes transfixed on what many people would describe as nothing. King Salmon’s few houses, roads, and infrastructure quickly yielded to tundra and scattered spruce trees. This was land devoid of permanent human habitation. Cross hatching animal trails led to unknown destinations. I saw wildly meandering creeks, too many ponds and lakes to count, and a horizon bounded by unnamed mountains.

After twenty-five minutes of flying, the pilot landed smoothly on Naknek Lake’s calm surface, and we taxied to an empty beach in front of the few scattered buildings marking Brooks Camp. With the help of fellow staff, I hurriedly unloaded and stashed my gear inside a nearby tent frame cabin and began to settle in.

Later that evening, Jeanne, my then girlfriend and now wife, and I returned to the beach. I had just finished a winter job at Death Valley National Park, where daily temperatures had already risen above 100˚F, but Brooks Camp looked like winter couldn’t decide to stay or go. Leaves had not broken bud, thick blankets of snow clung to the mountains, and the underground water pipes to our cabin remained frozen. I walked wide-eyed, trying to take in the totality of the scene—the turquoise color of Naknek Lake, the snow-capped mountains, the pumice-strewn beach, a set of bear prints in the sand—when Jeanne waved her arm toward the horizon and remarked, “This is spectacular.”

I don’t recall if I responded or not. Doesn’t matter, because she was right. I had never looked upon land so empty yet so full.

Katmai and Brooks River are unlike any other place. But relatively little has been published about the bears, salmon, and humanity that intertwine at the river. In 2014, I first imagined an idea of writing a book about Brooks River and its inhabitants. In 2016, I began to work on it in earnest and this year I finished the manuscript. I’m pleased to announce my book, The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River, is available for pre-order. It ships out in March 2021 via Countryman Press. In eighteen chapters, the book strives to explore the ecology of the river’s famed brown bears and salmon as well as the complex relationship people have with the place.

Part one focuses on the colossal eruption of Novarupta Volcano in 1912 and the discovery of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. This event reshaped the area’s history and led to the establishment of Katmai National Monument in 1918, a time when the national park idea was still fledging.

Today, Katmai is most famous for its brown bears. Part two is devoted to their lives and the salmon the bears depend on to survive. I explore the marvel of the hibernating bear from a den on Dumpling Mountain, discover the river from a cub’s perspective, and follow the tribulations and growth of young bears recently separated from their mother. The brown bear mating season provides the chance to learn how bears compete during one of the most important times in their lives. Writing about the bear hierarchy, I consider how this social structure provides advantages to bears who live in an unfair world. Katmai’s brown bears experience hunger in a profoundly different way than people. They must eat a year’s worth of food in fewer than six months to survive hibernation. Their feeding choices and habits reflect highly tuned adaptations to take advantage of summer’s ephemeral bounty. And, the poignancy of a cub’s death, one witnessed by thousands of people on the park’s webcams, provides the chance to reflect on the end of a bear’s life.

Few organisms are as important to an ecosystem as salmon are to Katmai. Leading Odyssean lives, sockeye salmon face tremendous obstacles and challenges. From fresh water to the ocean and back again, they travel thousands of miles, running a gauntlet of predators to fulfill their destiny. Weakened by their freshwater migration and subsisting without food for weeks, the journey of Brooks River’s sockeye ends when they sacrifice their lives to reproduce. They are the ecosystem’s keystone, driving the river’s abundance and significance.

In part three, I examine modern humanity’s influence over Brooks River. Humans may be the river’s biggest ecological wildcard. Climate change looms large over the land and seascapes, and people alter the behavior of the bears that make the scene so special. The infrastructure needed to support thousands of visitors and their recreational activities invite conflict with bears. Managing bears and people in such a small area is especially challenging, provoking a decades-long and often emotional debate about the river’s future.

The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River is an exploration of brown bears and salmon in one of the Earth’s last fully intact ecosystems. It’s an honest and deep dive into issues surrounding the role people play in the riverscape and Katmai National Park. And, I’m so excited for you to read it, and I hope you’ll consider adding it to your bookshelf.

Early September Bearcam Questions and Answers

This blog has been relatively dark over the last year, not because I hadn’t intended to write for it but because I frequently had other writing duties to fulfill. Afterward completing one task, it was often easier to space out at the end of the day than concentrate on writing something that approaches partial intelligence.

I want to share a little of what I have been writing though. Each Tuesday, I cohost a question and answer session in the comments on explore.org’s Brooks Live Chat channel. It’s an AMA about anything related to Katmai National Park’s bears and salmon. Many people submit your questions in advance, which allows me to answer them with greater detail than a question asked on the spot. Below are my answers to those questions during the Q&As for early September.

Be sure to join the Q&A every Tuesday from 5 -7 p.m. Eastern in the Brooks Live Chat channel, and if you prefer to chat in sentences limited to 200 characters, then join the bearcam conversation on explore.org’s Brooks Falls YouTube feed.

September 1, 2020

I’d like to talk about the “Beaver Pond,” which Kathryn asked about via the Ask Your Bearcam Question form. “I’ve often looked at photos of the [Beaver Pond] and wonder if any salmon can make it to the pond and if any of you have seen bears fishing or hunting around the pond?”

The “Beaver Pond” is located about fourth-tenths of a mile south of the outlet of Brooks River. A road provides an avenue to get near there although there is no developed trail to the pond’s edge. Bears use the area but mostly as part of their efforts to get to and from Brooks River because the pond is inaccessible to salmon.

The Beaver Pond in relation to Brooks River
A beaver at the Beaver Pond

Beavers maintain a lodge on the pond’s north side and a grass-covered dike (an old beaver dam) lines much of that area. But, the Beaver Pond isn’t a true beaver pond in the sense that its formation was the direct result of beavers. It was once part of Naknek Lake and has since been cut off by the sediments deposited by wind driven waves.

The beaver pond was once a cove on the edge of Naknek Lake. Strong easterly winds create waves that erode the gravel shoreline to the southeast of Brooks River. The waves carry gravel and sand northwest toward Brooks River. Over time, a horsetail shaped beach began to encircle the cove.  This image below is from an unpublished geologic report about the Brooks River area. Note the concentric ridges along the lakeshore near the beaver pond. These are the beach ridges that cut off the beaver pond from Naknek Lake.

This process is similar to what we see at the river mouth, especially in the “spit” area that partly encloses a lagoon-like area rangers call the boat cove. The boat cove may be destined to become a small pond or marsh like the wetlands between the river mouth and the beaver pond today, although the mouth of Brooks River is more exposed to direct blows from wind-driven waves than the beaver pond area. Strong storms can quickly rework and reshape the gravel at the river mouth.

In the above image, the parallel lines farther inland are old beaches as well, although they weren’t formed by longshore currents. Instead, they mark the former levels of Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks. Naknek Lake has been slowly lowering in elevation as Naknek River cuts through the glacial sediments that dam the lake.

Although we don’t know exactly what the Brooks River mouth area will look like in the future, we definitely know it will not look the same.

Jen wrote in wondering about the line-up of salmon we sometimes see below the river watch cam and asks, “Has that behavior been noted before?” And, “What criteria initiate egg-laying?”

This is the formation that Jen refers to.

Parallel lines of sockeye salmon in Brooks River. The fish are facing upstream and in this image the current flows from right to left.

Sockeye salmon line up in fairly parallel rows frequently in late summer in the lower Brooks River. Until this year, however, with more salmon using the channel below the river watch cam, we haven’t been able to see this on the cams very well. Although this is not a new phenomenon at the river, I haven’t been able to find an explanation for it. We know the salmon are staging (waiting for the right time to spawn) but I don’t know if lining up in rows gives them any sort of advantage. It may be the most efficient way to sort themselves or there could be some social cue among the fish that prompts the formation. It’s a beautiful feature of the lower river in late summer.

Regarding Jen’s second question, a female salmon lays her eggs in nests she constructs by fanning the gravel with her tail. This action winnows away fine sediments that might hinder water flow (and hence dissolved oxygen) around her eggs. She’s looking for gravel of the right size and in areas of the river with consistent water flow. Males will fan the gravel occasionally too but they play no role in nest construction. Once the female determines her nest is suitable and she’s accompanied by a suitable male, she’ll release her eggs directly into the nest while the male releases his milt. In this way, it is the female who determines when to lay eggs.

LoveTheBears writes, “I understand that there is an area designated for cleaning any caught and kept fish.  What happens with the discarded fish parts?”

There used to be a public fish-cleaning building at Brooks Camp. The first iteration wasn’t much more than screened-in shelter with a bucket on the floor where people disposed fish entrails. It was later replaced by a more substantial log cabin style building where people could clean their fish. Today though, there is no public fish cleaning facilities at Brooks Camp and the public is prohibited from cleaning fish within 1.5 miles of Brooks Falls. People can keep one fish per person per day downstream of the bridge, but they must take it immediately to the Fish Freezing Building (the old fish cleaning building) and place it in a freezer. It must remain there until you depart Brooks Camp.

Although no bears at Brooks River are currently conditioned to seek human food, it hasn’t always been this way. In the 1960s and 1970s, many bears learned to associate people with food and sought opportunities to get at human foods at Brooks Camp. The fish cleaning buildings were part of the issue along with open dumps, outdoor burn barrels for garbage, and overall lack of awareness and regulations about proper food storage in bear country. As part of the effort to reduce the risk of bears becoming food conditioned, the NPS got rid of the public fish cleaning facility.

Bears easily learn and remember any trick that allows them to find food. Therefore, we must remain constantly vigilant to ensure that bears don’t learn to associate us with fish. The NPS and the State of Alaska implemented somewhat strict fishing regulations in the 1990s, which has greatly reduced the number of incidents when bears have learned to associate people with fish. Eliminating public fish cleaning facilities and prohibiting fish cleaning within 1.5 miles of Brooks Falls inconveniences some people but it is a big step toward protecting bears.

September 8

Angela writes, “We were talking about hibernation in the chat thread and wondered if it is necessary for bears to hibernate. We understand that bears at Katmai hibernate, but were wondering if bears in captivity also hibernate or if because there is a regular food source, the need to hibernate isn’t triggered?”

Hibernation exists along a spectrum rather than being an either/or behavior. Some mammals such as arctic ground squirrels are obligate hibernators, meaning they hibernate regardless of ambient temperatures or access to food. Bears experience a type of facultative hibernation. Given the right circumstances, bears needn’t hibernate to survive winter.

Each year, at least some black bears in mild climates (Sierra Nevada foothills, coastal plain of the southeast U.S., and Big Bend National Park to name a few) remain active all year. These are generally adult males. Similarly, a few adult male brown bears are active on Kodiak all year. Mild temperatures and at least some food allow these bears to remain out and about.

In North America, only pregnant female bears must enter a den and it isn’t because they must hibernate. Bear cubs are born so small and physically immature that they need many weeks of additional development before they are mobile enough to travel with mom. This is even true of polar bears who utilize the winter season to hunt seals on sea ice. Instead of heading out on to sea ice in early winter, pregnant female polar bears, just like all other pregnant North American bears, head to dens to give birth.

Although a handful of bears remain active all year, especially in more southerly populations compared to Katmai, hibernation is a bear’s best energy conservation strategy. It makes sense for nearly all bears to hibernate during winter when food is either very limited or non-existent. For those bears who stay active (other than polar bears), their metabolism and activity rates are much lower than summer. Winter activity, therefore, doesn’t mean that bears are as active as they would be in summer. So even captive bears may ignore food and water provided to them, relying more on their hibernative physiology to survive.

Erin asks, “747 is a huge bear. Is he the biggest bear seen at Brooks River? Have there been bigger bears in the past?”

As I’ve said and written many times, 747 is a giant of a bear. He is the most massive bear I’ve ever seen and we should not take his presence for granted. If 747 were to disappear from the river, it may be a long while before we see another as big as he. Last year, 747’s was estimated to weigh more than 1,400 pounds.

747 from Fat Bear Week 2019

Each year, there are comparably sized bears in Katmai and at Brooks River. I’ll start by listing three of the currently seen bears who approach 747’s size class and then highlight two who might have approached it in the past. Only the largest adult males are comparable.

Right now 32 Chunk, 151 Walker, and 856 are close to 747’s size (at least within 300 pounds or so). They certainly rival him when measured by height and length. Each of these bears seem smaller to me than 747, but looks can be deceiving. Size is also an important determinate of dominance in the bear world. It is not absolute though. While 747 is more dominant than Chunk and Walker, 747 consistently yields to 856.

32 Chunk from Fat Bear Week 2019
151 Walker from Fat Bear Week 2019
856 from Fat Bear Week 2018

In the past, Brooks River has hosted some very big bears. While I never had the opportunity to see Diver in person, he was reportedly extremely fat and large in his heyday during the 1980s and 1990s. Look at this photo as an example.

In 2007, the most dominant bear I saw at the river was 24 BB. He was very tall and long–so a massively framed bear. He didn’t use Brooks River in late summer though so we never got to see BB at his peak size for the year. BB behaved much like 856. He asserted his dominance frequently and spent less time fishing than 747 does today, so he might not have been as heavy as 747 but the potential was there.

BB in July 2007

Marlene writes, “856 is getting older. I am wondering if he will know when he no longer can hold the top spot or do you think there will have to be a confrontation?”

856 has been the river’s most consistently dominant bear since 2011. Like all bears, 856 is great at weighing risk versus reward. For him, the overall risk of confronting other bears is low and provides great reward in the form of access to food, fishing spots, and mating opportunities, because other bears recognize his dominance. 856 will use that to his advantage as long as he can.

His high level of dominance is tied to his health and fitness. He’s a large bodied bear so will remain relatively dominant no matter what but he needs to maintain his good health and fitness in case another bear challenges him or is unwilling to yield. 856 might fall from the top of the hierarchy if he is defeated in a fight by another comparably sized bear.

His reign as the river’s most dominant bear could end in another way though. He might not feel up to the challenge.

In July 2017, 856 was an infrequent visitor in July and when he did show up, he yielded easily to 32 Chunk, perhaps because he suffered from a leg injury that hindered his ability to compete with other comparably sized males. At the time, already after many years of dominance, I thought this was the end of 856’s reign at the top. I was wrong. 856 returned to the return to the river in September 2017 looking as healthy as ever and acting as dominant as ever. He hasn’t taken a step back since.

The chances of a repeat of July 2017 could be in 856’s future just as much as his defeat in an intense fight at the paws of another bears. If 856 continues to return to the river as he ages into his early and mid 20s, I think we’ll see at least one of those scenarios play out.

Happy Birthday Bear

Across much of North America, tucked within isolated dens, a new generation of bears is beginning their lives.

Mother bears spent much of the last year preparing for this event. Although the timing varies among species and individuals, North America’s bears mate in late spring and early summer. The fertilized eggs, however, do not immediately implant in the uterus, undergoing only a few cell divisions before they enter a state of arrested development. During this process of delayed implantation, the female goes about her business while embryos remain in suspended animation. Implantation and fetal growth renew only close to the time she enters her winter den. Afterward, bear fetuses gestate for 6 – 8 weeks.

The gestation time is remarkably short for such a large mammal, and it produces especially tiny and helpless cubs. Brown bear cubs, for example, weigh a scant pound and measure only 8 – 9 inches long at birth, about the size of a beagle puppy. They are also born blind, lightly furred, and nearly immobile. Their ears are closed and their muzzles are short with a round, toothless mouth. Newborn cubs are so underdeveloped and small that they cannot maintain their own body heat in the den and must remain in contact with their mother to stay warm. About the only thing they can do is scream, which, not unlike human newborns, they employ frequently to gain their mother’s attention. It’s hard to imagine large adult bears so helpless, but they all start life this way.

Three small cubs held in a person's hands.

Newborn black bear cubs. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

The small size of newborn cubs is surprising for animals that weigh several hundred pounds when fully grown. Generally, larger mammal species have longer gestation periods and give birth to larger offspring than smaller mammal species. African elephant calves gestate for nearly two years and are born bigger than elk calves; elk calves gestate for about eight months and are born bigger than deer fawns; deer fawns gestate for seven months and are born bigger than fox kits; etc. But, bears break the rule by a considerable margin. Bears give birth to the smallest offspring in comparison to adult female body size of any mammal.

Cubs are only 1/200th the size of even the smallest reproducing female grizzlies and commonly 1/500th or less for large adult brown and polar bears. In contrast, newborn human babies are an order of magnitude larger than bear cubs. A 10 pound child born from a 150 pound woman is 1/15th the size of its mother (yeah, I know that’s a big baby but the math was easy). Additionally, offspring born to large mammals are generally precocial, i.e. they are at least somewhat and sometimes highly mobile soon after birth. Bear cubs, however, are more akin to helpless hatchling birds or pinky mice. There is no parallel among placental mammals—only marsupials give birth to offspring as undersized as bears.

But why are bear cubs born purposefully premature? Why not just have a longer gestation time and birth larger, more independent cubs? The short gestation period and the relatively small size of bear cubs at birth both appear to be an adaptation to maximize the use of fat.

Bears are the only mammals that give birth while hibernating, a time when they do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate. Survival during this time is dependent on stored body fat, but the paradigm poses a problem for expectant female bears. A developing mammal fetus cannot metabolize free-fatty acids, perhaps because these substances do not cross the placenta as readily as sugars and protein. So, as long as a bear tries to sustain fetal growth through her placenta, she needs to draw energy from her own body protein. Fetuses also produce bodily waste, which is transferred to the mother and adds to her physiological challenges. To cope, bears evolved an alternative strategy, one that allows her to give birth while hibernating, support the continued growth of cubs, and keep the family safe.

Unlike in the womb, baby mammals can metabolize fat shortly after birth and milk is the vector to deliver it. Bear milk is a particularly rich and nourishing substance. Brown bear milk, for example, is about 22% fat by volume. Polar bear milk is even richer, a whipping cream composed of over 30% fat. By shortening the gestation period, mother bears trade placental nourishment (mostly protein and sugar) for mammary nourishment (mostly fat) and tap into the one resource they have in abundance.

fat brown bear exiting water

Female bears utilize their fat reserves to support the growth and nourishment of their cubs.

On a diet of fatty milk, a brown bear cub can gain about a 1/5 of a pound of body mass per day, weighing about 5 pounds when one month old and 15 – 25 pounds by 90 days. Not coincidentally, this is about big as they would be if gestation was of an “expected” length like other placental mammals. The den, therefore, becomes a surrogate womb, protecting the family during the most vulnerable time in their lives.

Two polar bear cubs standing at the entrance to a snow den.

Polar bears play at the entrance to their mother’s den. These cubs are probably several weeks old. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

Bears face many obstacles to survive and reproduce, not the least of which is winter famine. Hibernation provides bears with the ability to outwit winter by surviving on accumulated fat, but during this time a female bear must support the growth of her cubs with nothing more than the energy stored in her body. Given the challenges posed by gestation, hibernation, and winter famine, the birth of a bear represents a remarkable and unparalleled feat of mammalian adaptation.

So, happy birthday brown bear.

My Live Bearcam Broadcasts in 2018

This was a busy year on the bearcams, courtesy of explore.org and Katmai National Park. We hosted more live broadcasts this  year than any other year since the bearcams first went live in 2012.

During play-by-play broadcasts Katmai rangers and myself narrated the Brooks River’s wildlife activity, much like broadcasters for sporting event (although the lives of brown bears and salmon is no game). We never knew what might happen during a play-by-play. Watching the prolonged posturing between two of Brooks River’s largest adult males, 856 and 32 Chunk, on July 12 and integrating the ranger’s radio traffic into the September 17th broadcast are two of my favorite play-by-play moments.

The other broadcasts, live chats, typically focused on a specific topic such as bear fishing styles, hibernation, and bear research at Brooks River. Rangers Andrew LaValle and Russ Taylor from Katmai joined me as frequent co-hosts for live chats and I was also fortunate enough to speak with many special guests. Perhaps the most memorable moment from these broadcasts occurred when bear 132 and her spring cub almost stepped on Ranger Andrew and I during our Katmai centennial live chat on September 24.

If you enjoy these, then please watch many other broadcasts hosted by Katmai National Park rangers and staff on explore.org’s education channel on YouTube.

 

Stuff I wrote in 2018

I was busy on a keyboard this year, even though there were long gaps between posts on this site. In case you missed them, here are the posts that I wrote for explore.org in 2018. They are listed in the order they were posted. My personal favorites include “How does a bear family breakup,” “How many salmon will a bear eat,” “Bearcam live chat surprise,” and “Living with Bears in Churchill.”

  • Brooks River Bear Mating Season: In June, food isn’t the only thing on a bear’s mind.
  • 2018 Bearcam Stories: 503: Emancipated from his adopted mom in the spring of 2016, bear 503, also known as Cubadult, has quickly grown into an energetic and often playful young adult.
  • Early June at Brooks Falls:  Standing at the falls from early to mid June is an exercise in patience and an opportunity to reflect on the changes soon to come.
  • 2018 Bearcam Stories: The Elders of Brooks River: Their longevity of Brooks River’s oldest bears demonstrates a level of individual success few bears achieve.
  • The Mouth of Brooks River: The lower river cams provide expansive views, colorful sunrises and sunsets, as well as the opportunity to see many yearly and seasonal changes.
  • What to Look for 2018: The Bear Hierarchy: Watching the ebb and flow of the hierarchy allows us to at least partly understand the conflict and challenges faced by bears.
  • Bear 856: On Top Again: Bear 856 appears to be big enough and healthy enough to show the river’s other adult male bears he’s ready to compete once again.
  • Death of a Bear Cub at Brooks River: As the smallest and most vulnerable of all bears, first year cubs (also called spring cubs or cubs-of-the-year) face significant risks and challenges, not the least of which are larger bears.
  • Dumpling Mountain Hike: Rising over 2000 feet above Brooks River, Dumpling Mountain offers anyone a quick escape from the hustle and bustle of Brooks Camp. Each time I hike on it, I get an opportunity to see the land in a new way.
  • Four Cubs for 402 Again: No matter this family’s fate, we can marvel at 402’s determination to follow her maternal instincts in an attempt raise another generation of Brooks River’s bears.
  • How Does a Bear Family Breakup? Until somewhat recently, I stated that 402 had “abandoned” her yearling (now known as 503). While this might be true in a sense, I no longer think that this is an accurate way of describing the event. After reading more about the emancipation process, I’ve come to believe 402 didn’t abandon her yearling in 2014. She emancipated him.
  • How Many Salmon will a Bear Eat? We often observe bears partake in marathon fishing sessions at Brooks Falls, so how much can they eat in a day or season? Quite a lot.
  • Salmon on the Underwater Bearcam: The calmer, deeper water near the outlet of Brooks River provides salmon with a temporary refuge that is relatively safe and costs them little energy.
  • 451 and Her Yearlings: 451 is currently raising her second litter, and it’s easy to see that the family is skinner than many of the other bears on the bearcams.
  • Bearcam Line of Sight: Where are the bearcams and where, specifically, do they look?
  • Brooks Falls Trail: Simply walking to Brooks Falls can be an exciting and memorable experience and allows great opportunities to explore a changing habitat.
  • Mid Summer Change at Brooks River: Are fewer bears at Brooks River a sign of change?
  • An Exceptional August: Regarding bear activity at Brooks River, August 2018 has been exceptional.
  • Fishing By Snorkeling: Efficient and effective, snorkeling is one of the best strategies to scavenge fish.
  • Can a Bear be Too Fat? When you see bears whose stomachs appear to drag on the ground, one wonders if a bear can grow too fat for its own good.
  • Bearcam Live Chat Surprise: “This being a live broadcast it’s entirely possible…a bear could walk through the screen at any time. So if we have to exit or end the broadcast abruptly that’s probably why.”
  • Fat Bear Week Quarterfinal Preview: The competition just keeps getting bigger.
  • Mike Fitz’s Favorite Bearcam Moments of 2018: Here are a few of my favorite bear cam moments for 2018.
  • Evidence of Rapid Change in Katmai: the Ukak and Savonoski Rivers spill across a broad, 1.5-mile wide delta. In a landscape often defined by change, this is one of the most dynamic places in Katmai National Park.
  • 2018’s Top Ten Bearcam Moments: the people have spoken! Bearcam viewers have chosen the top ten bearcam moments of 2018. Each moment is unique and significant for a different reason.
  • Living with Bears in Churchill: The confluence of bears and people in this remote community has created a special set of challenges, which can only be met through the town’s willingness to tolerate the largest four-legged predator on Earth.

Fat Bear Week 2018 Endorsement

Last October I wrote, “There are small and fat bears, old and fat bears, young and fat bears, and just plain fat bears. But none, NONE I say, are as fat as 747.” A year later, 747 continues to demonstrate his survival skills and success at Brooks River. He’s big enough and fat enough to once again earn my official endorsement for Fat Bear Week 2018. 747 is titanic, a giant among bears.

GIF of large, dark brown bear walking down a steep hill

Bear 747 is an adult male in the prime of his life. First identified as a subadult bear in 2004, he’s matured into the largest bear I’ve ever seen.

 

But don’t just take my word for it. Bear 747 is endorsed by several of his competitors at Brooks River.

bear lying on ground

“Look, we’re all fat right now, but no one is as fat as 747. Seriously, his belly nearly drags on the ground. Even I never achieved that level of pudge. “ Bear 410

profile of bear walking along edge of river

“I keep my distance from him because I’m concerned he’ll roll on top of me.” Bear 68

402_07062016

“I’m still in awe of his size. Can he even dig a den big enough to fit within?” Bear 402.

bear with blond ears and blond coat standing in water

“Even though I’m in the Fat Bear Week bracket, I still might vote for 747. It’s the logical vote. He probably weighs at least three times as much as me.” Bear 719

profile of brown bear standing on edge of waterfall

“747 is a role model of fat bear success. I hope to be as fat as him one day.” Bear 503

bear sitting in water below waterfall

“I’m too hungry to comment.” Bear 480 Otis.

Many people who have observed 747 closely also agree with the endorsement.

bear lying in water facing photographer

“He’s all business—fishing and eating. Nobody gets fat like 747.” Jeanne R., former Katmai National Park ranger.

Too much fat is unhealthy for humans, but fat is essential to the survival of brown bears. It is a savings account against famine. Without ample fat, bears do not survive hibernation. In spring, often a season of starvation for bears, females with cubs will metabolize fat into milk to nurse their growing cubs, and adult males will use their fat to fuel their pursuit of mates.

747 won’t be rearing any cubs next spring as male brown bears play no role in raising offspring. During a season when almost no high calorie foods are available to bears, 747 will use his fat to roam the landscape for mates instead.

Other bears might be more charismatic or tug on your heartstrings, but 747 truly is a giant among Brooks River bears. He deserves your vote for Fat Bear Week 2018.

Katmai Fat Bear Week Bracket 2018 Fitz choices.png

My 2018 Fat Bear Week bracket predictions.

You are encouraged to vote for Brooks River’s fattest bear on Katmai National Park and Preserve’s Facebook page. Starting on Oct. 3, park rangers will post head-to-head matchups between well-known bearcam bears. The bear whose photo receives the most likes will advance to the next round, until one bear is crowned fattest bear on Fat Bear Tuesday, October 9th. Don’t forget to watch Katmai’s fattest bears on bearcam.

 

 

 

A bear, wolves, and a moose carcass

Although they probably inhabit all of Katmai National Park, wolves are infrequent visitors to Brooks River, and seeing a wolf on the bearcam is a noteworthy occasion.

Late one evening at the end of June and about a dozen miles from Brooks River, I was lucky enough to see wolves compete with a bear for food along the middle reaches of Margot Creek.

At the beginning of the video, a blob in the middle of the creek represents the bear as it laid on the moose carcass. Two park rangers observed the same bear on the moose about seven hours before (no one witnessed how the moose died). When presented with a large animal carcass, bears will often bury it and/or sleep directly on it to protect it from other scavengers.

Not long after I started to watch the bear, a wolf emerged from the forest. It circled the bear, perhaps testing how tolerant or defensive the bear might be. Bears are quick, capable of outrunning any human, but they aren’t as fast as a wolf, and wolves know this. Therefore, the wolf was in little danger from the bear as long as it remained wary and stayed out of the bear’s reach. This didn’t stop the bear from charging the wolf several times though (only a few of which I was able to record). Despite the bear’s defensiveness, the wolf was persistent.

low resolution photo of a bear running at a wolf

A bear defends a moose carcass by charging a wolf who approached too closely. Photo courtesy of Anela Ramos.

Soon after the wolf appeared, the bear left the carcass and a second wolf arrived. The wolves didn’t appear to be in sufficient numbers or aggressive enough to chase the bear away. Perhaps the wolves were enough of an annoyance that the bear was unable to rest or the bear could’ve been chilled by lying on the carcass in the creek for several hours. Whatever the reason, after the bear left for good the two wolves quickly began to gorge on the moose. They focused their efforts on the moose’s abdomen, thoroughly eviscerating it within fifteen minutes.

grainy photo of two wolves eating a moose carcass in a creek

Two wolves tear into a moose carcass soon after a brown bear left it unattended. Photo courtesy of Anela Ramos.

Shortly afterward, stomachs bulging with moose entrails and meat (wolves can eat over 20 pounds of food in a single feeding session), the wolves sauntered into the forest.

Events like this happen in many places where wolves and bears share habitat, but in Katmai it might be more intense in spring and early summer before spawning salmon become abundant across the ecosystem. Bears often steal the show at Katmai, but wolves also prowl the landscape, following their own strategies for survival and sometimes competing directly with bears for food.

Return to Bearcam 2018

As many readers of this blog are aware, one of my favorite places in the world is Brooks River in Katmai National Park. There, about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, brown bears and salmon gather to create one of the most iconic scenes in America’s national parks.

many bears standing and fishing near a waterfall

Brooks Falls on a busy evening

 

I’m pleased to announce that through the generosity of explore.org, I’ve received a fellowship to work with Katmai’s bearcams, live streaming webcams of at Brooks River.

In conjunction with Katmai’s park rangers, I’ll write blog posts (which you can read on explore.org and Medium), chat frequently in the bearcam comments, and host live chats and play-by-play style broadcasts. I hope to make time to write about my other explorations on this blog as well.

Bearcam season is almost upon us. Webcam technicians are at Brooks River now, upgrading the webcams for a better live cam streaming experience. The first sockeye salmon should arrive at Brooks River in a matter of days and the bears will arrive soon after. This will be an exciting summer, so please join me here and on bearcam.

Hibernation Hangover

In Glacier National Park, Montana, a black bear has emerged from hibernation, but hasn’t left his tree cavity den.

According to the park website, this bear was first seen on March 23. Since then, the black bear, who is male, has mostly rested in the tree cavity. After a long winter of hibernation, you might assume a bear would be eager to get moving and find something to eat, but bears often don’t leave their denning site for days, sometimes weeks, after they emerge in the spring.

A bear fresh out of the den isn’t the same bear it will be in May. Immediately after emerging from their dens, bears are active but neither hungry nor particularly thirsty. In one of the first studies on the physiology of hibernating bears, researchers found captive bears ignored food and water for up to two weeks and some bears didn’t begin to eat and drink normally for three weeks after they emerged from their dens. One grizzly bear didn’t even urinate for two days after it emerged. (In contrast, during another study a black bear in the fall urinated copiously, producing eight to sixteen liters of urine per day.)

This annual life stage of springtime bears has been described as “walking hibernation.” Compared to summer and, especially, early fall, bears in walking hibernation are hypophagic. They actively ignore food and drink little water while still surviving on body fat. During walking hibernation, bears experience an internal transition from full hibernation to a more active physiology. Research on brown bears in Sweden, which I wrote about previously, has found the body temperature and metabolic rate of brown bears doesn’t stabilize until 10 and 15 days, respectively, after den emergence and their heart rate doesn’t stabilize for another month.

Graph that shows the timing of several variables affecting the start and end of hibernation in bears.

These graphs chart the relationship between physiological parameters of brown bears in Sweden. Den entry (left column) and exit (right column) are indicated by time zero (the green vertical line) to determine the sequence of physiological events. SDANN is the standard deviation of heart rate variability over five minute intervals. It was used a proxy measure of metabolic activity. A red line denotes when a variable was decreasing, while a blue line indicates when a variable was increasing, with the number of days from the entry/exit indicated. From Drivers of Hibernation in the Brown Bear and reposted under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International License.

bear feet sticking out of hole in tree trunk

The transition from hibernation to fully active includes lots of resting. Screen shots from the Glacier National Park bear den live stream.

black bear in tree cavity

Possibly because their metabolism and heart rate remain somewhat low, many bears seem to loathe leave their dens, at least right away. So, it’s not uncommon for bears to remain near their denning site while their bodies transition back to more active levels.

The bear at Glacier will leave its tree cavity den relatively soon. His hunger will grow as his metabolism returns to active levels. His libido will increase too, and he’ll begin to prowl the land for females in estrous (the mating season for black and grizzly bears peaks in late spring). Compared to other stages in their annual cycle, less is known about the first few weeks of life for bears after they emergence from hibernation. It is rare for us to witness a bear’s life at this time. With webcams and other digital tools like GPS collars, we’re gaining a greater depth of knowledge about many wild animals. Glacier’s webcam provides a rare opportunity to observe a bear shortly after it has emerged from hibernation. Like most bears right now, it remains in a bit of a hibernative hangover.

The Difference Between Brown and Grizzly Bears

For my book on Brooks River’s bears and salmon, I find myself digging deep into natural history and ecology of brown bears. Sometimes I uncover research that challenges my long held assumptions. Take the difference between brown and grizzly bears, for example; something I often said was mostly based on geography and diet. As I wrote for Katmai’s website:

All grizzly bears are brown bears , but not all brown bears are grizzly bears. Grizzly bears and brown bears are the same species (Ursus arctos), but grizzly bears are currently considered to be a separate subspecies (U. a. horribilis). Due to a few morphological differences, Kodiak bears are also considered to be a distinct subspecies of brown bear (U. a. middendorffi), but are very similar to Katmai’s brown bears in diet and habits.

Even though grizzlies are considered to be a subspecies of brown bear, the difference between a grizzly bear and a brown bear is fairly arbitrary. In North America, brown bears are generally considered to be those of the species that have access to coastal food resources like salmon. Grizzly bears live further inland and typically do not have access to marine-derived food resources.

These geographic and dietary distinctions seem simple enough. However, there is little scientific evidence to support it. Both brown bears and grizzly bears exist, but the differences between them aren’t what I had long assumed.

bear grazing on vegetation with travertine and forest in background

A grizzly bear grazes on springtime vegetation near Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.

bear in water

A brown bear at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. (NPS Photo)

Although North American brown, grizzly, and Kodiak bears belong to the same species, Ursus arctos, bear taxonomy underwent many revisions before scientists reached this conclusion. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, taxonomists frequently lumped and split brown/grizzly bears into many different species and subspecies. The separation peaked in 1918 with the publication of C. Hart Merriam’s Review of the Grizzly and Big Brown Bears of North America in which Merriam proposed around 80 (not a typo) species and subspecies of North American brown bears. Taxonomists like Merriam relied on morphological characteristics that could be seen or observed to classify living and extinct organisms. Warm-blooded animals that have hair, breathe air, and produce milk for their offspring are mammals, but warm-blooded and air-breathing animals that lay eggs, have feathers and toothless beaks are birds. These are greatly simplified examples, I realize, and such tidy and clear distinctions aren’t necessarily common in nature. They often become more difficult to resolve at the genetic and species level, especially in cases of hybridization or when taxonomic distinctiveness is based on subtle physical differences.

Merriam’s nuanced classifications of brown and grizzly bears were based on differences in skull morphology and dentition, characteristics he examined painstaking detail. Among taxonomists, Merriam was a splitter. On southeast Alaska’s Admiralty Island alone, he classified five distinct species . In the Katmai region, Merriam described two species, Ursus gyas for the Alaska Peninsula and Ursus middendorffi for Kodiak Island , as well as others for bears living in the Cook Inlet area and on the Kenai Peninsula.

If you think his classifications of brown/grizzly bears was a little over the top, you’re not alone. Merriam foreshadowed opposition to his conclusions when he wrote in his Review, “The number of species here given will appear to many as preposterous . To all such I extend a cordial invitation to . . . see for themselves.” And they did. Most of the species or subspecies described by Merriam were later regarded as local variations or individual variants. While all of Merriam’s species have since been lumped together as U. arctos, in the mid 1980s as many as nine extant or extinct subspecies of U. arctos were recognized in North America , but the only names for North American brown bear subspecies in still widely used are U. a. horribilis, the grizzly bear, and U. a. middendorffi, the Kodiak bear. Recently, however, even these classifications have come under question.

In hindsight, it’s easy to scoff at Merriam’s conclusions. Could there really be dozens of brown bear species in North America? Within the methodologies and knowledge of his era, his results aren’t that far fetched. Little was known about the behavior, growth rates, ecology, and population dynamics of North American bears in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Given access to the same tools and information as modern taxonomists, Merriam may have discovered grizzly and brown bears can’t be so easily divided by differences in skull and tooth shape.

Ursus arctos is one of the most widely distributed mammal species on Earth. Historically, brown bears were found from the British Isles south to North Africa and east across northern and central Asia to Alaska and most of western and central North America. Two to three million years ago, they split from a common ancestor shared with black bears . The oldest brown bear fossils are from China and date to about 500,000 years ago. By 250,000 years ago, they spread to Europe. During the last 100,000 years of the Pleistocene, bears immigrated and emigrated across much of the northern hemisphere as climate and habitat dictated. When continental ice sheets advanced, available habitat shrunk and bears became isolated into separate populations. When the ice receded, bears dispersed into the new territory. Beginning around 70,000 years ago, the first brown bears moved into North America. While we know when and where bears lived and live from fossils and historical records, this doesn’t necessarily deduce the genetic relatedness of modern populations.

Phylogeography is a branch of phylogeny, the evolution of an organism or group of related species or populations. As such, phylogeography traces the distribution of genetic variation through time and space. In this regard, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is especially useful to track female ancestry. MtDNA  resides in the mitochondrion, a cell’s powerhouse, and is inherited from the mother only, unlike nuclear DNA which is a recombination of genes from both parents. According to mtDNA analysis, there is no divide between brown and grizzly bears based on an animal’s relationship to the coast or marine food sources, nor does it support the status of U. a. horribilis or U. a. middendorffi or any other historical subspecies in North America. The only historic classification that holds is at the species level—Ursus arctos. Instead, matrilineal ancestry suggests brown bears in North America fall into three main clades.

  • Mainland Alaska, Kodiak Archipelago, and northwest Canada.
  • ABC Islands (Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) in southeast Alaska.
  • Southwestern Canada (Alberta, British Columbia) and the lower 48 States.

Clades are groups of organisms evolved from a common ancestor and consequently share a genetic relationship. The three North American clades, as well as others in Europe and Asia, are believed to be descended from brown bears living in isolated populations in Asia during the late Pleistocene . Since then, the mtDNA has remained geographically separated due to the tendency of female brown bears to be homebodies. Female brown bears are philopatric. They tend to remain near or have partly overlapping home ranges with their mother and do not rapidly invade areas already occupied by other brown bears . This can prevent or at least greatly slow mtDNA from mixing into other bear populations, even long after significant barriers like ice sheets have disappeared.

screen capture of Earth with clades of bears outlined.

Approximate range of brown bear clades in North America based on mtDNA. Different clades are represented by horizontal and vertical lines. The solid red circle marks the location of brown bears on the ABC islands.

Bears on the ABC Islands are the most genetically distinct of all Ursus arctos. Their mtDNA aligns them more closely to polar bears than to other brown bears , a genetic uniqueness most likely resulting from interbreeding with a small number of isolated polar bears at the end of the last ice age. Since then, female brown bears on the islands have not spread their polar bear genes to the mainland. Bears in British Columbia, Alberta, and into the lower 48 represent another lineage who arrived in Alaska around the same time as the ancestors of the ABC bears. During a warm interglacial period, some of these bears moved south into the mid continent before the ice advanced again and sealed them off from their brethren to the north.

All other brown bears in northwest Canada and Alaska, including those on Kodiak, belong to a clade that dispersed from Asia in two separate waves. Those in northwest Canada arrived first, perhaps as early as 33,000 years ago. Bears now occupying mainland Alaska represent the last pulse of ursine migrants onto the continent, arriving just before rising sea levels flooded the Bering Strait and closed the land bridge between Asia and North America. Excluding the ABC islands, all Alaskan brown bears belong to this pedigree, which stretches from northwestern Canada and Alaska west across Russia and into Europe and includes most of the world’s brown bears.

The results from mtDNA only convey information about the maternal line, however. MtDNA cannot trace genes spread exclusively by male brown bears, so it underrepresents the role of males in gene flow. Male brown bears have larger home ranges and disperse away from their mother’s home range more readily than females, especially during their first few years of independence. Males do carry one important bit of DNA that females don’t—the Y chromosome. Like mtDNA, it is only inherited from one parent, but unlike mtDNA it can only be passed from father to son, making the Y chromosome an important marker to trace paternal gene flow and diversity.

While mtDNA shows particularly strong clade differentiation  across the entire range of Ursus arctos, geographic variation in the Y chromosome of brown bears is much shallower . According to analysis of the Y chromosome, no deep genetic or geographical divergences could be found from bears in Eurasia or North America. Brown bears on the ABC islands and mainland Alaska, for example, share closely related haplotypes (a group of genes inherited from a single parent ) found in the Y chromosome. Even brown bears from populations as separate as Norway and the ABC islands have been reported to carry highly similar Y chromosomes . Male genes, therefore, flow across clades.

infographic showing hypothetical inheritance of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome through three generations of bears.

Within mammals, mitochondrial DNA can only be inherited through the maternal line. The Y chromosome is only passed from father to son. MtDNA tends to stay within genetically related clades because female bears are philopatric. Male bears, due to their inclination to disperse farther and have larger home ranges than females, can spread Y chromosomes over bigger areas. Unlike nuclear DNA, neither mtDNA nor the Y chromosome are a mix of maternal and paternal genes.

This isn’t to imply male bears from the Yukon immigrate to Europe or vice versa, just that males are more apt to wander and set up home ranges well away from their mother. If female brown bears, due to their philopatry, differentiate a population’s genetics over time, then male bears homogenize it. In other words, female brown bears like to stay in familiar terrain, but males often spread their seed far and wide.

With evidence of geographically isolated clades through mtDNA but not in the Y chromosome—can we still divide brown bears into biologically significant units? Even though genetic research adds another dimension to our understanding of wildlife, morphology remains an important way to differentiate species, and subspecies don’t necessarily need to be from separate or unique ancestry to be worth protecting. Grizzly and brown bears still exist, just not along a clean geographic and dietary divide. Where we draw the line is less important than the overall conservation of bears. Populations of brown bears—whether they are from Katmai, Kodiak, or Yellowstone—remain ecologically and culturally special no matter their genetic distinctiveness. Bears in Yellowstone are geographically and (at least currently) genetically separated from other “grizzlies.” Kodiak bears aren’t genetically distinct enough to justify them as a separate clade even though they have been isolated from mainland bears for approximately 12,000 years. Hypothetically speaking, if bears are extirpated from Kodiak or Yellowstone then they won’t be coming back and a valuable repository of genetic diversity will be lost forever.

The line between a brown bear and a grizzly, as I used to define it, was always tenuous at best. (Should grizzlies in interior Washington, British Columbia, and Idaho—who may have fed on salmon before runs in the Columbia and Snake watersheds collapsed—be considered brown bears?) Now through DNA analysis we know Ursus arctos cannot be so arbitrarily split based on their geographical closeness to the ocean. It’s still ok to say grizzly, Kodiak, or brown bear—the names can still be incredibly powerful and useful—but maybe the only truly accurate name for them is Ursus arctos.

References:

Bidon, T. , et al. Brown and polar bear Y chromosomes reveal extensive male-biased gene flow within brother lineages. Mol. Biol. Evol. 2014. 31(6): 1353-1363.

Davidson, J., et al. Late-Quaternary biogeographic scenarios for the brown bear (Ursus arctos), a wild mammal model species. Quaternary Science Reviews. 2011. 30:418-430.

Rausch, R. L. Geographic Variation in size in North American brown bears, Ursus arctos L., as indicated by condylobasal length. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 1963. 41(1): 33-45.

Schwartz, C.C. et al. “Grizzly Bear,” in Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation. 2nd Edition. Editors Feldhamer, George A., Bruce C. Thompson, and Joseph A. Chapman. John Hopkins University Press. 2003.

Talbot S. L., et al. Genetic characterization of brown bears on the Kodiak Archipelago. Final Report to Kodiak National Wildife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006.

Waits L. P., et al. “Genetics of the bears of the world.” In Bears: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. Compiled by Christopher Servheen, Stephen Herrero, and Bernard Peyton. IUCN/SSC. 1999.

Waits, L. P., et al. Mitochondrial DNA Phylogeography of the North American Brown Bear and Implications for Conservation. Conservation Biology. 1998. 12(2): 408-417.