Last updated: August 15, 2017
Photo Courtesy of A. Ramos: When many bears are present at Brooks Falls, the dominance hierarchy is most conspicuous.
Throughout July and into August, the bearcam community buzzed with excitement over a new shift in the bear hierarchy: #32 Chunk rose to become the most dominant bear seen on Brooks River.
Not all fishing locations along the Brooks River are created equally. Some are more productive than others, and the most productive are located at Brooks Falls. As salmon prepare to jump the six foot waterfall, they pool up in larger numbers than anywhere else on the river. Experienced bears know this, and must compete for access to favorable fishing conditions. As a place where the largest, most dominant bears congregate to feed – and dually, the primary bear viewing destination in Brooks Camp – Brooks Falls is the best place to see the hierarchy of dominance take shape.
Photo Courtesy of A. Ramos: #32 Chunk eats a salmon in the "jacuzzi."
Fierce competition over limited fishing locations results in a hierarchy among the bears that use the Brooks River. To avoid injury, this “pecking order” is reinforced each year so bears can determine where they can and cannot safely fish in the presence of other, more dominant bears. The largest and most dominant individuals have free reign over any fishing location they choose, and less dominant bears consistently yield to them.
Since 2011, #856 has been the “top bear” at the falls – his mere entrance to the area resulted in the scattering of all but his most formidable competitors. Just last year, #32 Chunk, a very large male bear in his early teens, fled at the sight of #856 approaching the falls. Even larger bears, like #747, would consistently yield their spot to #856. This year, however, has been a different story.
When #856 was first seen on the Brooks River in early July, he appeared as a shell of his former self. All bears returning in early summer are much smaller than when they were last seen the previous fall, but #856 looked surprisingly skinny, even for this time of year. He moved slowly, and without confidence. Bears that were once quick to retreat from his approach now ignored #856. Since early July, #856 has been seen along the river and at the falls, but fishing mainly where other large dominant males are absent. We do not know what triggered #856’s dramatic fall from prominence on the Brooks River. Perhaps he is recovering from an injury inflicted by another bear. Perhaps he did not put on adequate weight last fall. Perhaps he is recovering from an illness. We may never know.
Photo Courtesy of A. Ramos: #856 is still a large-bodied bear, but he has not gained weight to the degree expected for a bear of his size.
In #856’s absence, #32 Chunk appears to have taken the top position of dominance at the falls. For years, Chunk has been a very large bear, but not a very dominant one. He was often chased away from the falls by other male bears, even some that were smaller than him. #634 Popeye, #775 Lefty, and even #151 Walker were seen at times pushing #32 out of his preferred fishing locations in 2016. Bigger is better in the bear world, but only if you use it.
This year, #32 Chunk is throwing his weight around. He’s stolen fish from other large bears like #480 Otis and #755 Scare D Bear, chased younger bears away from the falls, and exerted his dominance over his competitors. He’s gotten physical with a number of other large bears, and used the unique bear body language of restrained aggression to warn others that they should stay away from him and his chosen fishing locations.
The bear hierarchy at Brooks Falls is dynamic. While #32 Chunk appears to have secured the top spot for now, only time will tell if he can maintain it. #32 does not demonstrate the same unrelenting dominance that #856 did at his peak. He is able to push other large bears around, but he does not command the same level of caution as previous bears that “ruled” the falls. Chunk frequently scavenges leftover salmon and plays with other bears – not the most dominant behavior for a large boar. Recently, #32 was even seen begging for fish from another, less dominant bear.
Photo Curtesy of A. Ramos: #32 Chunk play fights with #755 Scare D Bear near the falls
#32 Chunk may adjust to his new role and become a more forceful presence in coming seasons. On the other hand, he could soon be displaced by another bear, eager gain unrestricted access to the best fishing locations at the falls. The stakes of this drama are high, and only one bear can lay claim to the title of “most dominant bear at the falls.”
As we watch this competition for survival unfold, we’ll slowly piece together a more complete narrative. Stay tuned on the bearcam at Explore.org to follow along.
Photo Courtesy of A. Ramos: #32 Takes a nap on the far side of river under the falls.