Bears Return To Brooks River, Ready For A Summer Of Fattening Up

The Brooks River in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve is a great place to grab a quick bite. There’s a limited menu, but most guests this summer are only after the salmon anyway. In fact, recent guests 856 and 68 have already sampled some of the river’s finest fish.

We expect them to go back for seconds.

Over the next few months, visitors to Explore.org may see several bears gorging on salmon as they fatten themselves up for hibernation.

According to Mashable, the longstanding dominant bear of the Brooks River, bear 856, is now 20 years old. As the biggest, baddest, and most aggressive ursine around, 856 has had his pick of prime fishing sports for a while.

“To be atop the hierarchy for almost a decade is quite a long time,” Mike Fitz, the resident naturalist for explore.org and a former park ranger at Katmai, told Mashable. “Every year, I’ve wondered, is this the year he’s going to take a step back?”

Source: Twitter/Katmai National Park
Bear 719 and her two yearlings arrive at the Brooks River.

It seems that bear 68 may be the one to put 856 in his place. The up-and-comer established his presence in 2019 by besting bear 747, the largest bear of the year, in a fight.

“This was an uncommon instance where bears couldn’t settle their dispute without fighting,” Fitz said. “To me, it highlights that they live in a tough, competitive environment with limited resources. 68’s move to fight 747 was bold and risky.”

Source: Twitter/Katmai National Park
Bear 273 is back at Brooks Camp with three of her yearlings.

As Fat Bear Week approaches, the title of fattest bear is still anyone’s game. Among this years contenders are:

  • 856 – A big bear who’s been on top for over a decade. Will this aging bear retain his dominance of the Brooks River?
  • 68 – A hefty upstart who is looking to expand his territory. He fought 747 in 2019 and won. He could do the same this year.
  • Holly (435) – Last year’s champion. Without cubs to wean and share food with, Holly grew quite large in 2019. It’s yet to be seen if she gave birth in the spring.
  • 503 – Abandoned as a cob, then adopted by Holly, 503 continues to grow in size and stature.
  • Old Otis – As his name implies, Otis is not the most spry. He’s often seen sitting by the riverside waiting for salmon to swim by. This strategy has helped Old Otis fatten up in past yaars. Will it work again?

“I’m definitely going to be watching the hierarchy and how it ebbs and flows this year,” said Fitz.

Source: Twitter/Katmai National Park
Bear 128 arrives at Brooks Camp with two spring cubs.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has led to a drastically decreased human presence at the Katmai Conservancy in 2020. The loud and disruptive float planes that shuttle visitors to and from Brooks Camp have been making flights far less frequently.

Rangers at Katmai are eager to see if fewer human visitors will lead to more bears coming out to the river this year.

Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.

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