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.

Filling the Gaps: 274

In the fall of 2016, a bear with a distinctive light-colored patch of fur on its left shoulder was seen at Brooks River. The identity of this bear, at the time, was a mystery. It behaved like it knew its way around the falls and looked like a bear I should recognize.

The problem was I didn’t. So, I speculated. Based on the bear’s shoulder patch, I said it could be 469, a bear who is not often seen at Brooks River but became of interest to webcam viewers in 2013 as he dealt with a leg or foot injury.

Afterwards, the mystery bear was sometimes labeled as 469 in photos and videos.

I was never sure of this ID. The bear’s face, overall fur color, and body size didn’t match 469, but my suggestion fueled further speculation when the bear returned in 2017.

I now know my identification was incorrect. Katmai’s staff has since identified this bear as 274.

bear standing in water with gull in background

Bear 274 Overflow on September 27, 2017. NPS photo.

274 is a maturing adult male and is believed to be the offspring of 438 Flo. Unlike most brown bear cubs, he and a sibling remained with their mother through four summers (most mother bears in Katmai keep their cubs for two to three summers). This is the only example of a brown bear family in Katmai remaining together for four summers.

bear family with older cubs sitting on grassy island

438 (center right) sits with her two 3.5 year-old offspring in 2010. One of these cubs, perhaps the bear on the far left, is believed to be 274.

I never had the opportunity to watch 274 in person in the fall as he is an infrequent visitor, which is perhaps the reason I was mistaken originally. Bears have distinctive features that allow us to identify them across seasons and years. Yet, they can be notoriously difficult to recognize from early summer to fall. 274’s wide-set blond ears and shoulder patch should remain distinctive identifying features during future autumns. His current shoulder patch, it should be noted, wasn’t present in 2012, the last time he was positively identified in the fall.

bear walking in water next to grassy bank

Bear 274 in September 2012. NPS photo.

As he continues to grow, we could see 274 attaining a higher rank in the bear hierarchy. During the last few years he’s not been timid when using Brooks Falls, but he’s also not been large enough to occupy the most preferred fishing spots without being displaced regularly. If genes (which control his potential for growth, health, and lifespan) and fortune (which provide the opportunity for him to attain his physical potential) align, then 274 could become one of the more dominant bears at Brooks River.

brown bear sitting and looking towards camera

Bear 274 in July 2016.

Filling the Gaps

Last July on bearcam, we witnessed the ascent of 32 Chunk in the hierarchy at Brooks Falls. Chunk was the largest bear to consistently use the falls in July, and most bears didn’t challenge him. We watched Chunk interact with many bears, occasionally with some that I (and many bearcam watchers) didn’t recognize. In mid July, for example, we saw Chunk displace another large adult male.

GIF of bear on left moving away from approaching bear who appears at right.

In this GIF from July 2017, a unidentified bear avoids the approach of 32 Chunk.

At the time, a few bearcam watchers speculated the subordinate bear may have been 856, who was the most dominant bear at Brooks River for many years. As I wrote in a previous post, I didn’t think this was 856. So who was it? Was he a previously identified bear or a newcomer to the river?

Before his seasonal position ended this fall, Ranger Dave from Katmai posted photos of several bears who were seen along the river, but were unknown or unrecognized by webcam viewers. Assuming Ranger Dave’s IDs are correct, which they are much more often than not, the unknown bear in the GIF above could be #611.

brown bear standing in water

Bear 611 at Brooks Falls in 2017. Photo courtesy of Dave Kopshever and Katmai National Park.

611 is a bear I don’t know much about. According to my notes, he was first identified in 2015, but only in September and October not in July. Preliminary bear monitoring data from that fall state this bear was an older subadult or young adult at the time.

611_09162015

611 in September 2015, the first year he was identified. NPS photo.

I may be splitting hairs or misunderstanding Dave’s intent, but note that Ranger Dave said, “This is believed to be 611” when he posted the photo. Perhaps there’s still some uncertainty regarding the ID. Filling in the gaps of who’s who at Brooks River can be difficult, and it isn’t possible to identify every bear with certainty. But—based on scars, size, head shape, and ear color—I am fairly convinced the bear in the 2017 photo posted by Ranger Dave is the same bear that Chunk displaced in the GIF above.

At Brooks River, I made the effort to learn to recognize the bears who used the river frequently. Since bear behavior is often complex and can vary from animal to animal, recognizing individual bears leads to a better understanding of their growth, behavior, and strategies for survival. If 611 returns in 2018, we’ll have another opportunity to observe his behavior. Will he challenge other adult males for fishing spots or will he avoid confrontation more often than not? Whatever happens, it will allow us to learn just a little more about the bear world.

My Trip to Brooks Camp 2017: Day Three

When you enjoy watching wildlife as much as me, you don’t want to waste time with biological tasks like sleeping. Still, sleep is a necessity and I can’t watch bears in the dark. After a reasonably restful night, I woke before sunrise and left the campground when there was just enough light for me to see without a headlamp or flashlight. This would be my last full day at Brooks River in 2017 and intended to make the most of it.

Related:
My Trip to Brooks Camp 2017: Day One
My Trip to Brooks Camp 2017: Day Two

Early morning hours at Brooks River are generally quiet. Planes haven’t arrived and most people are either sleeping or focused on breakfast. The dominant sound at this hour tends to be the cry of glaucous-winged gulls.

Bears like early morning meals just as much as people, and I fully expected to find bears too close to the trail or bridge for me to reach the relative safety of the lower river wildlife viewing platform. Luckily, the corridor from the lodge to the bridge and the platform was clear before 7 a.m. In a short while, however, bears filled the void and for much of the rest of the day the bridge would remain closed to people.

When I first reached the platform, only 409 Beadnose and her yearlings were visible. Her cubs behaved quite independently, catching most of their own salmon. Yet they remained prone to begging food from their mother and bawling when they want to nurse. Two subadults entered the river upstream of the platform. 410 made the most of her chance for breakfast, eating at least five salmon carcasses in a half hour. It was still too dark for my point-and-shoot camera to take clear photos, so I sat back, watched, and took notes.

409, her cubs, and two young subadult bears all eventually wandered toward the river mouth and the beach in front of the lodge, allowing more people to cross the bridge. As the platform got noisier, I decided it’s a good time to wander to Brooks Falls.

The walk to the falls is quiet and uneventful, but bears used the trail just moments before. Foam clung to the surface of a large puddle of urine and bright red, relatively undigested lingonberries polka dot the surface of a fresh pile of scat.

red berries in bear scat

Even with the high abundance of salmon, bears were still feeding on berries.

The falls platform was empty when I arrived and no one else arrived for the next hour as bears remained too close to the bridge for people to cross. Within my experience at Brooks Camp, it’s rare to have the falls platform to yourself when bears are around.

view of river bordered by forest

I quickly forgot about being alone though as bears were quite active. 410 had made her way from the lower river to the falls where she fished her normal spot in the far pool. 68 was giving it a shot in the jacuzzi. Both bears ignored each other and remained separated by about 30 yards. When 747 arrived 68 quickly moves out of the jacuzzi to make way for the larger bear.

After 747 decided to push the other bears around, 503 appeared in the far pool. While 747 is absolutely the largest bear at Brooks River, I was shocked at 503’s size. He’s not particularly fat, but’s he’s very big for his age. Bears grow quickly yet I don’t recall ever seeing a 4.5 year-old brown bear as big as 503.

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503’s story is well documented here and here.

Returning to the lower river, I watched more subadult antics. Now after 10 a.m., the bridge had not yet opened because bears were consistently within 50 yards of it. Four to five subadult bears, all of which I saw the previous day, fished and played nearby.

409 Beadnose and her yearlings wandered toward the bridge from the lake to rest.

bear cub resting its head on its mother

Around 11:30 a.m., I contemplated crossing the bridge to eat lunch. At Brooks Camp food can only be eaten inside of buildings or at designated picnic areas. Possession of food, unless actively transporting it from one designated area to another, is also prohibited. With lots of bears in sight, I reasoned I could ignore my hunger pangs and eat later.

Upstream, 854 Divot and her yearlings scavenged for fish. Not yet having the opportunity to observe them much on this trip, I waited for them to fish their way downstream. Fall bears have a pattern though; they fish then sleep. Many human-habituated bears—especially 854 Divot, 409 Beadnose, 410, and 435 Holly—often choose to sleep near the trail between the lodge and the river. When that happens, the trail is usually closed until the bears wake and move on. I knew I risked a long delay getting to and fro if Divot and her cubs chose to sleep near the bridge or trail.

Which they did. At 12:10 p.m., Divot and cubs settled in for a nap on the bank just upstream of the floating bridge. With no alternative route around the bears, the bridge and trail were closed. There was nothing to do but wait. Bridge closures and Brooks Camp’s famous bear jams can be frustrating situations for people unaccustomed to them or too impatient for them, but bears need the habitat near the mouth of the river as much as they need the falls. To make a long story short (one I hope to tell in greater detail in the future) 854 slept in that spot for two hours and with many other bears fishing in the river, the bridge didn’t open for over three hours.

A half hour after crossing the bridge though and refreshed after a quick snack, I was back at the river when word of Otis’s arrival at Brooks Falls spread among the staff. Not knowing if I’d get another chance to see him before leaving the next day, I skipped bear viewing at the lower river to go to the falls, where I found 480 Otis as well as 68, 503, 719, 747, and an unidentified subadult.

bears fishing at waterfall

480 fishes in his office at Brooks Falls shortly after arriving. 747 sits in the water nearby.

Rain moved through later in the evening, but I still had one more morning of bear watching to enjoy before my flight out.

My Trip to Brooks Camp: Day Two

Due to strong winds, I was unable to reach Brooks Camp on time. The next morning, as instructed by Katmai Air, I arrived at their dock before 7 a.m. I was eager to get on the “first load.” Evidently everyone who didn’t reach Brooks Camp the previous day was told they’d be on the “first load,” which caused Katmai Air to deal with some cranky customers. (Not me, I might add, but I understood others’ frustration.)

aerial photo of lakes and mountain

Looking southwest toward Mount Brooks from the air.

Around 8:40 a.m., I arrived at Brooks Camp—or Lake Brooks to be exact. Winds out of the east were still too strong for planes to land on Naknek Lake, but I didn’t mind the view of Dumpling Mountain and the head of Brooks River.

lake and mountain scene

Dumpling Mountain and the outlet of Lake Brooks

After heading straight to the visitor center to get my bear orientation…

Ranger in log cabin talking to people

Yes, even former rangers are required to attend the bear safety talk upon arrival at Brooks Camp.

…I hurriedly pitched my tent in the campground….

tent in grass with tree in background

My tent in the far southwest corner of the campground, as far away from other people as I could get.

…and walked back to the lower river to binge watch bears.

wet tan-colored sand next to log

Fine pumice sand, evidence of the powerful winds from the previous day’s storm, was all over the beach.

In September, the wildlife-viewing platform near the mouth of Brooks River is my favorite place to be. Upstream, just where the river enters my line of sight from the platform, thousands of salmon work to complete their life cycle. As the fish weaken and die, the river’s current sweeps them downstream. Where the river’s current is not longer strong enough to carry them further, it drops the barely live and dead fish, making the river mouth and meanders just upstream the most productive salmon scavenging areas at Brooks.

When I arrive on the platform four subadult bears play and fish, while 409 Beadnose and cubs lounge nearby. After another large salmon run, the bears at Brooks River are well fed, and perhaps as a result the younger bears were especially playful.

brown bear standing with front paws on boulder

One light brown subadult bear out of this bunch very much resembles 273’s yearling in 2016. This bear appears to be a young subadult, but is large for a 2.5 year-old.

Around noon, after Beadnose and cubs settled into a nap below the platform, I decided to visit Brooks Falls, where bears had been fishing in higher than average numbers for this time of year. I had a hypothesis as to why, but I needed at least a few cursory observations to support it.

Over my short stay, the vast majority of fish I saw bears catch at the falls were silver (coho) salmon. This run begins in August and often continues through September. Larger on average than sockeye, a single, fresh silver salmon can provide several thousand calories for bears skilled enough to catch them. Like the beginning of the sockeye run in late June and July, the late run of silver salmon is most accessible to bears at Brooks Falls.

Bears standing at waterfall

Two adult male bears, 68 (left) and 879, fish the far pool of Brooks Falls.

But bears in the lower river make huge energy profits as well. In the early evening, after skipping a true lunch to eat an early dinner (to maximize bear watching time), I return to the lower river until sunset. 410 and 409 Beadnose both patrol the river slowly, snorkeling for any salmon that can swim away. In a half hour, 410 eats four fish. Over an hour, Beadnose leisurely consumes eight. These are relatively low catch rates for this section of river, yet even assuming the salmon carcasses provide less than half the energy they did in July (spawned out fish may contain 2000-2500 calories or less compared to the 4500 calories when the first arrived) 410 and 409 still ate at least 8,000 and 16,000 calories respectively. In past years, when 410 has remained within my line of sight longer at the lower river, I’ve counted her eating 41 fish in 3 hours 25 minutes. Even if she only ate part of each fish, when your profit is measured in calories needed to survive winter hibernation, this isn’t a bad day’s work.

As the sun begins to set behind the western toe of Dumpling Mountain, I relaxed to watch bears come and go from the river—128 Grazer, 409 Beadnose, 284, 410, 708, 610, four unidentified subadults, 879, 474, and many cubs. If the sun didn’t set so soon and I didn’t risk running a gauntlet of bears in the dark to get to the campground, I would’ve remained out for much longer. Responsible bear watching, however, includes not wandering around in the dark, so I retire to the campground eager for sunrise and another day on the river.

panorama of river and mountain near sunset

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.

An Old Bear’s Teeth

480 Otis is currently the oldest adult male bear known to use Brooks River. First identified in 2001, a conservative age estimate places him in his early twenties. This bear is a skilled and patient angler who often sits for hours in Brooks River. When he catches salmon though, a common ailment of bears his age is noticeable.

bear in water biting salmon with side of his mouth

480 Otis often bites the tails off of salmon by utilizing his molars, a method that younger bears with all their canine teeth do not use.

In 2013, I first took note of the peculiar manner in which Otis eats his salmon. Unlike young bears with relatively sharp canine teeth and incisors, Otis sometimes seems to struggle with grasping and biting through the tough skin of sockeye salmon. He seemed to use his molars much more than younger bears to bite into salmon. After watching closely through binoculars, I eventually saw why. Otis is missing canine teeth.

Notice how he seems to have difficultly chewing his food.

Otis’ lower left canine appears to be completely missing. A nub of his upper right canine may still exist, but it is so small to be nearly useless. He may also have missing or worn incisors, premolars, and molars. This affects his ability to grasp and bite into salmon.

Even when salmon are so abundant that most bears high-grade their fish—eating the fattiest parts like the skin, brain, and eggs and discarding the rest of the carcass—Otis eats higher proportions of the whole fish, probably because his worn and missing teeth prevent him from handling the fish as dexterously as his younger competitors.

Throughout their lives, brown bears suffer from broken bones, disease, wounds, and many other ailments. As they age, the rigors of their diet and lifestyle wear on their teeth. Without access to a dentist, bears must tolerate broken and worn teeth as well as deep cavities and even abscessed teeth, conditions which may ultimately reduce their fitness and survival.

480 Otis is one of the most experienced bears at Brooks River. Despite his less than healthy teeth, he continues to fish quite successfully (incredibly, he once caught and ate 44 fish in about six hours!) to gain the calories needed to survive the lean months of winter and spring.

fat bear sitting in water in front of rock wall

 

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.

Chunk Didn’t Displace 856

A few days ago, bearcam viewers alerted me to an interesting interaction at Brooks Falls where 32 Chunk appeared to displace 856.

I’ve taken some time to review bearcam footage of the subordinate bear in the video above, and I don’t think he is 856. The bear looks like an adult male, based on his size and the presence of scars around his face. I don’t recognize him, but I am willing to say it is not 856. Here’s why…

856 is a large adult male with blond ears and a long neck. This year he returned with a noticeable limp and sports a shed patch on his rump.

856 will fish at several different places in the falls—the jacuzzi, in the far pool, and near the rocks in between. When he sits at the rocks, he does so in a fairly distinctive manner.

When 856 fishes the jacuzzi, he’ll often leave that spot to eat near the island, almost sitting and facing away from the cam.

In contrast to these behaviors, the bear displaced by 32 Chunk doesn’t appear to be limping (and I’ll admit that bears can heal quickly, so the limp may not be very pronounced now). Both 856 and the unidentified bear may have similar wounds or scars on their face, the ears of the bear displaced by 32 Chunk are darker. The contrast between the unidentified male bear’s front quarters and hind quarters is also more apparent than 856. His muzzle appears blockier than 856, and 856 is very unlikely to play with 89 Backpack.

bear standing in water near waterfall

This is a screen shot of the unidentified adult male who displaced by 32 Chunk.

bear standing on grass near water

856 walking on the island near Brooks Falls in July 2015.

So was this a changing of the guard at Brooks Falls? Probably not. In my opinion, 32 Chunk displaced a full grown adult male, but the subordinate bear was not 856. However, in the absence of other large males like 856 and 747, 32 Chunk may be the most dominant bear on the river. Chunk clearly asserted his dominance over the unidentified male.

Almost every year, a new and fully mature adult bear shows up at Brooks River. Bears are creatures of habit, but they also remain flexible, changing their behaviors when necessary. The unidentified male may have never visited Brooks Falls before and never encountered 32 Chunk. His life up until now is a mystery, but these events are one reason why the story of Brooks River’s bears is so fascinating. This is a constantly evolving story. It will never become static.

View more photos of 856 from 2015 and 2016.
(Thanks to bearcam fan stmango for compiling many videos for me to review.)