One of the most watched bears in the world — Bear 402 — has returned to Alaska’s brown bear cam this summer with a litter of four small cubs.
Bear 402 typically spends much of July standing atop the Brooks River waterfall waiting for salmon to leap into the air on their journey upriver. Here, explore.org has positioned cameras in Katmai National Park to watch wild brown bears, like 402, catch fish, tussle, and grow fat during the long days of the Alaskan summer.
This summer, Bear 402 will attempt to keep four mostly helpless cubs alive. And this is a mighty task. Litters of two and sometimes three are common, but rarely four. And in the past, 402 has had trouble keeping just one young cub alive.
“Cubs face significant risks, and they are especially vulnerable in their first summer,” Mike Fitz, a former Katmai ranger who has returned to the park to report on bears for explore.org, said after a large male killed a cub earlier this month.
Beyond attacks by other bears, vulnerable cubs can fall ill, drown or not pack away enough food before winter.
In short, there’s a good chance that only one or two of 402’s cubs will survive the summer.
Both the Park Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have researched cub survivability at Katmai. They found that cubs have about a 34 percent chance of survival, said Fitz, meaning that only about one in three cubs will survive.
This is the lowest-known survival rate for wild bear cubs anywhere in North America, besides Denali National Park. It seems, then, Katmai cubs have it particularly harsh, though this study was done on the Katmai coast, and the bear cams are situated more inland.
This is Bear 402’s seventh litter of cubs — so she’s certainly an experienced mother. But the outlook for all four cubs surviving is still quite grim.
“However, no mother bear at Brooks River is known to have successfully weaned four cubs from a single litter,” Fitz wrote earlier this week.
Bear 402 brought four cubs to the river in 2015, but lost two by the next summer. Two previous four-litter mothers lost all four bears, noted Fitz.
And bear cubs have another, lesser-known threat: each other.
“One aspect of cub life that people sometimes overlook is the competitiveness between litter mates,” Fitz said over email.
“Cubs don’t share and their moms don’t teach them to,” he said. “Cubs will shove each other aside for access to the most productive teats to nurse from and guard scraps of fish from their brothers and sisters.”
As 402 traverse the Brooks River this summer under the gaze of five webcams positioned across the river, each new day for them, is a victory.