• Large male brown bear at Brooks Falls

    Katmai

    National Park & Preserve Alaska

The Last Bear Killed at Brooks Camp

January 29, 2014 Posted by: Michael Fitz
Sister's pelt in the Brooks Camp Visitor Center
In the Brooks Camp Visitor Center, a bear pelt hangs in the rafters. This pelt belonged to a young female bear nicknamed Sister. After obtaining food and equipment from people, Sister became the last bear destroyed at Brooks Camp. This is a story of mistakes and loss. It teaches a lesson that we should never learn the hard way again.

The Story
On July 6th, 1982, a sow with two cubs obtained fish, as well as a backpack containing additional fish, from a group of anglers. This was the first in a series of incidents that summer in which a sow with two cubs obtained food and gear from people in the vicinity of Brooks Camp.

Later on the same day, a sow with two cubs damaged an airplane float containing several fish. On July 23rd, a sow with two cubs was in the area immediately after an unidentified bear pulled five packs from the elevated storage area in the Brooks Camp campground. Six days later, on July 29th, a sow with two cubs took an unattended bag of flour from a skiff in which food was being stored. Almost month later, there was another incident involving a female with two cubs, when the sow took two backpacks from an unattended canoe.

From a bear's perspective, getting food from people is a strong reward. It greatly increases the likelihood the bear will do it again and become a threat to human safety. Bears have good memories, and the sow's behavior in 1983 was consistent with what she learned in 1982.

On June 12th, 1983 at 11:00 AM, two people were fishing in the upper Brooks River and observed a light brown sow with two yearlings on the bank. The anglers moved farther into the river. The bears advanced toward them and then resumed walking downstream. Around 12:00 noon, a sow and her two yearlings were observed, without incident, within 10 feet of an occupied tent. At 12:30 PM, a sow with two young approached to within 15 feet of two people who were sitting on a rock in upper Brooks River. They had left an unattended daypack on the trail by the river. The daypack contained no food, but the bears picked up a camera, nosed the pack, and looked at the two people for a few minutes before moving off downstream.

Later that same afternoon at about 1:00 PM, the two anglers who had met the bears at 11:00 AM stopped to have a picnic lunch beneath the platform at Brooks Falls. They looked up and saw a sow with two yearlings nearby and moving toward them. They abandoned their food and moved away. Before they left the area, the anglers watched as the bears ate their abandoned food.

At about 2:30 pm, two people were fishing in the oxbow area of Brooks River. They saw a female with two yearlings downstream of them. The bears were moving upstream along the shore towards them. The anglers moved to the opposite shore, and the bears crossed the river and continued to approaching them. The anglers moved back into the river, and the bears followed. The anglers crossed the river and climbed up a steep, eroding hillside. One of them had difficulty. He reached a snag in the bank and was being hoisted up by the other person just as the sow reached the snag. Fortunately, the sow also had difficulty in getting past the snag. The two people continued moving away and the three bears crossed the river and disappeared into the vegetation.

The next day, June 13th, 1983, a sow with two yearlings damaged two tents, as well as a backpack, a duffle bag, and a sleeping bag in the campground around 2:00 PM. None of these items contained any food, but the sow's behavior was becoming a danger to human safety. Park rangers made a difficult decision.

The Consequences
On June 13th, the decision was made to destroy the sow, who had repeatedly obtained food and gear rewards from humans. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game concurred that it was necessary for defense of life and property.

Around 3:00 PM on June 14th, 1983, a park ranger was on the north bank of Brooks River and saw the sow with two yearlings about 100 yards upstream. The ranger began moving downstream, and the bears disappeared into the vegetation. A person on a vantage point thought he saw the bears in the vegetation moving toward the ranger, so he radioed a warning to the ranger. The ranger jumped to an island in the river just as the sow stepped out of the vegetation at the spot where the ranger had been. The ranger crossed the river and the sow moved to the island, but did not cross the river.

The bears then moved downstream to the oxbow, where they picked up the scent of garbage that had just been placed in the area to attract them. They moved directly to the bait, where the sow was killed by rangers. The yearling cubs were hazed away and left the area. Examination of the female's carcass showed she was in excellent general condition.

The bear nicknamed Sister (center) is flanked by her yearling cubs in 1983
As a direct result of people acting carelessly, the bear nicknamed Sister (center) was killed in defense of life and property in 1983.

The Lesson
With Sister, one incident in 1982 led to a cascading series of events in which the bear family's behavior was reinforced again and again with food like fish and play rewards like tents and backpacks. This bear's fate was entirely preventable. She was just being a bear. It was the mistakes of humans that led to the female's death.

Bears are smart animals that are quick to learn, especially when their behavior is reinforced with the reward of food. The experiences of this female and her cubs in 1982 led the female's death in 1983. Often, it only takes one person's mistake for a bear to learn to associate people with food.

In the years since the death of this bear, Brooks Camp has experienced a remarkable safety record even with increasing numbers of people and bears along the Brooks River. Food storage, gear storage, and fishing regulations have been tightened to minimize the chance that Sister's story will be repeated. However, the lessons we take away from her story are only as good as the actions taken while visiting Katmai.

It is up to everyone—every person who visits Katmai—to keep bears safe. Today, Sister's pelt hangs in the Brooks Camp Visitor Center as a reminder of our mistakes. She taught everyone a lesson and it's a lesson that should never have to be repeated.

bear, bear-human conflict, Brooks Camp, bear management




19 Comments Comments Icon

  1. calvin - hickory, united states
    April 10, 2014 at 08:05

    i feel so sorry for that bear

  2. Katie - Fort Lauderdale, Florida
    February 02, 2014 at 07:03

    it is time for people to start being held accountable for their actions in wildlife encounters. it is always the animal that suffers when most of the time people are at fault!

  3. Michael Fitz - Katmai National Park and Preserve
    January 31, 2014 at 05:51

    @Will: No problem. Glad I was able to clarify it for you.

  4. Will - Anchorage, Alaska
    January 31, 2014 at 05:10

    @Michael Fitz Sorry I missed the time line, it seemed like a lot of incidents to have happened in 2 days. I'm probably a little over sensitive with the problems we have in Anchorage and the time it takes for someone to make a decision. Thanks for the clarification.

  5. Michael Fitz - Katmai National Park and Preserve
    January 31, 2014 at 04:54

    @Mary Glynn: Besides strict food and gear storage regulations, people who visit Brooks Camp are required to attend a mandatory bear safety talk and orientation as soon as they arrive. This essentially serves the purpose of the “contract” you suggest. By attending the orientation, we can ensure that everyone is informed of the rules, regulations, and special situations of Brooks Camp.

  6. Michael Fitz - Katmai National Park and Preserve
    January 31, 2014 at 04:53

    @Mary: Regulations have indeed become stricter at Brooks Camp since that time. For example, if you visit Brooks Camp today, you are not permitted to carry any food with you unless it is being actively transported to a designated food cache. Having a picnic at Brooks Falls, for example, is now prohibited. Food and drink, except water, can only be consumed in designated sites and no property of any kind can be left unattended. In this way, almost all temptations bears have to even start associating us with food or toys is nearly eliminated. The safety record at Brooks Camp both for people and bears reflects that. No bear has been killed at Brooks Camp since Sister.

  7. Michael Fitz - Katmai National Park and Preserve
    January 31, 2014 at 04:52

    @Will: I can’t speak from personal experience in this case, because I was not there. However, as the timeline of events in 1983 shows, the bear family obtained food from people on June 12 and the sow was killed on June 14. There was a relatively fast decision making process. The decision to kill the bear was made on June 13, presumably after the bear family damaged equipment in the campground at 2 PM. Rangers may have been ready to act that evening. Perhaps the bears did not show themselves that night. Additionally, at Brooks Camp, even in the early 1980s, rangers and biologists had to consider many factors before they could act, such as the whereabouts of people and how to kill the bear. Since people are allowed to roam virtually everywhere at Brooks Camp even today, I’m sure rangers had to consider carefully where and how action could be taken.

  8. Mary glynn - Norwood, Ma
    January 31, 2014 at 04:39

    people should be made signed a contract. read the rules. If they break theeem the they should be sued

  9. Mary - Norwood, Ma
    January 31, 2014 at 04:36

    it time to fine people for this HEAVY fines. I am sorry I do not feel sorry for a person who is attack by a bear because the human was stupid or did not care. No bear or any animal should be killed because a human did not listen or take precuatuions

  10. Nancy - Lisbon, ME
    January 31, 2014 at 04:21

    This sad story should be shared with anyone visiting this very special place. Katmai is bear country. Rules for human behavior is the only way to protect the bears. Kudos to the staff for done such a excellent job tightening the rules and protecting the bears.

  11. Will - Anchorage, Alaska
    January 31, 2014 at 04:04

    They waited too long to put that bear down!

  12. Michael Fitz - Katmai National Park and Preserve
    January 31, 2014 at 02:45

    @Suzie: Consider it done.

  13. GK - Washington DC
    January 31, 2014 at 11:54

    Thanks, Ranger Mike. Sad to hear about Sister's fate. As you say, she was just being a bear.

  14. Suzie - Boston, Ma
    January 30, 2014 at 10:56

    Ranger Mike, Thank you for publicising this heartbreaking but important story. Is there away it could be shared on Facebook also? A lot of people would see it

  15. Michael Fitz - Katmai National Park and Preserve
    January 30, 2014 at 01:26

    @Rose: It is important to keep your possession free of strong food odors (leave the smoked salmon at home), but at Brooks Camp it is even more important to store your food properly, only eat food in designated areas, and keep all of your equipment in your immediate control. In this way, we can prevent almost all temptations bears have to even start associating people with food.

  16. Rose - Camanche, Iowa
    January 30, 2014 at 01:11

    After reading Ranger Mikes' post I will wash my backpack that I use to carry my camera equipment in PineSol and NOT put any type of food or snacks into on our travels. It was heart breaking to read that a bear had to be put down because of a human ! That area belongs to the Bears,and everyone should remember that. We are in their world and should treat it as that.

  17. Sande - Saraland, Alabama
    January 30, 2014 at 11:20

    Thanks for that article Ranger Mike. So sad that bear met the fate she did. Reminds us in powerful way what not to do when visiting Brooks !

  18. Michael Fitz - Katmai National Park and Preserve
    January 30, 2014 at 09:38

    The cubs were yearlings (1.5 years old) when their mother was killed. From what I know, there is no record of the yearling's fate. In the 1970's rangers and biologists tried to relocate several bears from the Brooks River area. None of these relocations were successful. In one instance a plane carrying the bear to be relocated crashed and the bear inside it drowned as the plane sank (the pilot was OK). In the other instances the bears came right back to Brooks. For example, female that was relocated to the Pacific coast (which is remarkably good bear habitat) came back to Brooks within a few days or her relocation. Katmai is a big park, and the bears were taken 40 or more miles away from Brooks, but bears are creatures of habit with strong homing abilities. They want to go where they know they can find food. Once a bear knows where food is, it is nearly impossible to keep it away. Since relocation of bears has such a poor track record (and not just in Katmai), it has essentially been abandoned as bear management strategy by the National Park Service. This incident with Sister in 1983 led to the establishment of strict food and gear storage regulations in the park, and since then even stricter fishing regulations have been implemented. As a result of these rules and with new bear management practices, no bears have had to be killed at Brooks Camp since Sister. Her legacy is a reminder of the consequences of not taking the appropriate steps to secure food and equipment.

  19. Peggy - Carmel, CA
    January 30, 2014 at 08:28

    It is so sad that the mom and cubs couldn't be placed somewhere else, but then she could have been a danger to other hikers/campers elsewhere or come back. The fact that she approached the last ranger so closely definitely was a danger to him and they had to make that decision. Is there any indication of what happened to the cubs, are they able to survive on their own at that age? They were about 1 1/2 if I read it right. Thanks for the interesting pieces you are writing!

 

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Did You Know?

Mother bear with cubs

The average age at which a female brown bear first successfully raises her cubs to weaning is 8 years.