On a sunny May morning in 2014, as the Alaskan subarctic was beginning to warm up, park rangers watched a young female bear, Tundra, explore the marshland around the famous Brooks River.
Two months later, she was dead.
Tundra, also known as Bear 130, had been partially eaten by another bear.
One of the peaks of the bear-viewing summer season has now arrived, as the legendary Alaskan salmon run entices brown bears to congregate around the Brooks River waterfall, in remote Katmai National Park. In this wild, far-off realm, people globally tune in to watch bears snatching salmon out of the air, and once full of fish, dozing beside the river.
But, the incessant competitiveness of the bear world is also on display through the bear cam during the long Alaskan summer days, as the bears vie for meals and territory, bullying each other and chasing competitors away.
“Brooks Falls is only a microcosm for the competitiveness of the bears’ world,” former Katmai ranger Mike Fitz, an expert naturalist who is reporting on bear activity for explore.org this season, said via email.
Guarding dead bodies
It’s not unusual for bears to behave in ways that human viewers might perceive as horrifying, like Tundra’s death.
Much of this behavior, however, can be explained by the ceaseless need to compete for resources.
The year before Tundra’s death, a dominant male bear — who had acquired a rather nasty reputation among park staff — had found a dead bear on the lakeshore. This dominant bear, known as Lurch and numbered Bear 814, proceeded to bury the carcass in sand, grass, and volcanic rocks.
Lurch then laid on top of the buried carcass. He had stored it away, in preparation to eat it.
“His large size allows him to successfully defend carcasses from almost all other bears,” Fitz wrote that September. “He essentially guarantees those calories to himself which gives him a competitive advantage over other bears.”
Fall had arrived, the fish in the river were rotting, and winter was fast approaching. Lurch needed more calories before the long winter famine hit — so he found some.
“814 Lurch demonstrates the successful survival skills of a dominant brown bear,” said Fitz.
Danger, always lurking
Bears have to constantly be on the lookout for threats, and this is no more apparent than on the bear cam itself.
“When they gather in high numbers to feed on concentrated food sources like salmon, bears are quite vigilant,” said Fitz.
Bigger is dominant in the bear world, but many bears are young or simply smaller. These bears can often be seen moving out of the way of more dominant bears, to avoid any conflict — or worse. Sometimes, for instance, a bear will quickly run or leap from its fishing spot to accommodate a more dominant bear.
It’s rare for smaller bears to try to fish at the Brooks River waterfall, as this prime feeding territory is dominated by larger bears. Instead, these bears can often be seen scavenging for scraps.
“In juvenile bears, their profound hunger may bring them close to Brooks Falls, but these young bears, recently separated from their mother, tend to hover on the fringes, picking up discarded salmon carcasses and keeping a safe distance from larger adults,” said Fitz.
Mothers with cubs are often the most vigilant. At times, large male bears will kill recently-born cubs. There have been 13 documented accounts of this lurid event, called infanticide, occurring at the Brooks River since the early 1980s — though it’s unknown how common the events are beyond the view of rangers.
One instance of infanticide has already been documented this summer.
The river’s most dominant bear this year, Bear 856, apparently had a chance encounter with a mother and two cubs. Bear 856 swiftly pinned one of the helpless cubs on the ground and killed it, before returning to the river to feed.
It’s hard out there for a bear
Not all of the grim events at the Brooks River, however, are inflicted by bears.
One of the mothers of bear cam, Divot (numbered Bear 854), appeared at the mouth of the river in 2014 with a wire snare wound tightly around her neck. The snare had cut over an inch-deep into her flesh. Park biologists, wrote Fitz, decided that it was “something that would likely be life-threatening if left untreated.”
It’s unclear where Divot was ensnared — it could have occurred outside of Katmai National Park entirely — but biologists decided to intervene because Divot’s plight was human-caused.
Tracking down a wild bear, tranquilizing it, and removing the snare, though, is an ambitious task.
“We had to get lucky,” wrote Fitz.
But this particular story, incredibly, doesn’t have a dark end. Rangers undertook a brazen mission, following Divot and her cub on a boat as the bears traversed the lakeshore. They successfully tranquilized Divot, cut off the snare, and doused the gruesome neck wound with antibiotics.
Divot was fortunate, then, that she wandered into bear cam territory, a place that is quite wild, but still monitored closely by rangers and others.
In most every other circumstance, however, rangers will not intervene in the harsh bear world. Tundra was a popular bear cam bear, but she fell victim to a world that is, above all else, competitive.
“Smaller bears sometimes encounter competitors that they can’t outrun or avoid,” said Fitz.
Sometimes, the bears just can’t beat the competition.