Recent Bear Deaths at Brooks River

November 23, 2015 Posted by: Michael Fitz and Jeanne Roy

Bearcam 2015 ended with startling deaths that highlighted the harsh realities of a bear’s world. People rarely witness bears dying. When they do, it is usually at the paws of another bear. Over the last 30 years, relatively few bear deaths have been documented in Katmai. The death of two bears, a young cub and an adult male, offered the opportunity to learn from events that people rarely have the opportunity to observe and study. Below is a list of the most frequently asked questions about these deaths and the answers we have so far.

What happened?
On Wednesday, October 21, 2015 bearcam viewers watched a mother bear (451) and her two spring cubs. One of the cubs stumbled as it walked. The cub collapsed at the base of the viewing platform near one of the bearcams. For two and a half days, it remained there. 451 and her other cub remained nearby for most of this time. Viewers monitored the status of the bear, keeping counts on breaths per minute at the request of park employees. On Friday, October 23 at approximately 7:45 PM AKDT the cub expired. The cub was collected for necropsy on Saturday, October 24.

Mother bear resting near her dying cub451 and her other cub remained near the dying cub for over two days. Screen capture from River Watch bearcam on explore.org.

biologists carry dead bear cubBiologists collected 451's dead cub as soon as they could retrieve it. Screen capture from River Watch bearcam on explore.org.

A few hours after the dead cub was retrieved, webcam viewers noticed a large, brown, stationary object at the lakeshore near where the cub died. It did not move in the following days. Due to its size, color, and location, park staff believed it was a dead bear. Since the possibility for a disease outbreak or human-caused deaths existed, park staff decided to return to Brooks River, conduct a gross field necropsy, and send samples to a lab for further analysis. Weather prevented biologists from getting to Brooks Camp to investigate until Wednesday, October 28, at which time they determined that the large brown object was an adult bear. When they arrived, wildlife technicians conducted a gross necropsy of the bear and identified it as 868, an adult male who was first seen as an independent bear at Brooks River in 2006.

biologists in personal protective equipment examine a dead bearBiologists in personal protective equipment begin to examine 868’s body. NPS Photo/L Skora.

What killed the cub?
No signs of outward trauma were visible on the cub. Preliminary results from a laboratory analysis indicate that the cub likely died from canine adenovirus type-I (CAV-1). This disease is also called canine infectious hepatitis. The tissue samples from the cub tested negative for rabies and canine distemper. Other test results are pending. Analysis was conducted by USGS staff at the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC).

dead bear cubThis is how biologists found 451’s dead cub. The tufts of hair were removed by ravens after the cub died. Only after lab analysis were pathologists able to determine the likely cause of death for this cub. NPS photo/L. Skora.

How prevalent is CAV-1 (infectious canine hepatitis) in Katmai’s bears? Is it contagious? What other effects might it have?
Infectious canine hepatitis is a viral disease found worldwide that primarily infects dogs, foxes, wolves, coyotes, and bears. A 1998 study documented about 10% of brown bears on the Alaska Peninsula had the antibodies that indicate they had contact with the virus. Ongoing, unpublished research suggests that recent infection rates may be higher, especially on nearby Kodiak Island. Researchers are currently studying the prevalence of CAV-1 and other diseases in Alaska to determine if their prevalence changes through time. A partial list of effects of CAV-1 on bears can be found at http://wildpro.twycrosszoo.org/S/00dis/viral/Infectious_Canine_Hepatitis.htm.

Does CAV-1 pose a risk to humans?
CAV-1 does not pose a health risk to humans. Humans who handle sick or dead animals should observe routine precautions and wear personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves, rubber boots, disposable or cloth coveralls. Thorough hand washing is also recommended.

Does CAV-1 pose a risk to dogs?
CAV-1 does infect dogs. Prevention of the disease in dogs is through vaccination. Most combination vaccines for dogs contain a modified CAV-2 which creates immunity for CAV-1. No pets or service animals are permitted within 1.5 miles of Brooks Falls, an area referred to as the Brooks Camp Developed Area, but leashed dogs are permitted elsewhere in Katmai. Since all habitats in the park are utilized by brown bears, pet owners who plan to bring their dogs to Katmai should ensure their animal’s vaccinations are up to date.

What killed 868?
868’s cause of death is undetermined. No signs of outward trauma were visible on 868, except for a broken nose (the nose could’ve have been broken when he collapsed to the ground). 10-12 gallons of fluid were present in his abdominal cavity, which is not a normal finding. Initial laboratory analysis was performed by the Wildlife Health and Disease Surveillance Program, Division of Wildlife, Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Tissue samples from the bear were then forwarded from ADF&G and USGS Alaska Science Center on to the USGS NHWC for diagnostic analysis. He tested negative for CAV-1, so it appears that his death is unrelated to the cub’s. 868 also tested negative for canine distemper virus. No parasites were observed in the tongue or abdominal cavity fluid. However, samples from 868 were decomposing rapidly by the time they reached the lab for analysis which may prevent us from ever knowing his cause of death.

bear standing on edge of Brooks Falls868 was regularly seen at Brooks Falls in July. His death demonstrates that even apparently healthy bears in the prime of their lives can fall victim to disease or illness. NPS/M. Fitz.

Why didn’t rangers help the bears?
There are a few reasons why Katmai's staff do not rescue and rehabilitate abandoned, injured, and/or sick cubs. To summarize—

1. Policy: The NPS aims to maintain natural processes in the areas that we manage. 
2. Feasibility: There aren’t enough zoos or rehab centers to care for all injured and orphaned bears, nor does the park have the staff or expertise to respond these situations in a timely manner.
3. Expense: It is very expensive to care for these animals.
4. Need: Katmai’s bear population is thought to be healthy enough that we do not need to take measures to increase it. 
5. Bears are tough: Most never need our help, even the injured or sick.

Bears need to be given the chance to live like wild bears. If, for example, park staff had captured and sent an injured 89 Backpack to a rehab center in 2007 he’d likely be living a life of captivity instead of the life of a wild bear (read more about his story). If, to cite another example, rangers would have captured 402’s abandoned cub and sent it to a zoo, then it would not have had a chance to get adopted by 435 Holly. We would not have had the opportunity to witness and learn from that rare and unique event. These are fascinating stories that demonstrate bears’ adaptability, resourcefulness, and resiliency. This situation was also complicated by the continued presence of 451, the mother of the cub. It would not have been safe to approach the cub with the mother nearby. Rangers and other park staff realize that it can be hard to watch an injured or abandoned cub struggle to survive, but that is part of the bear world. Given a chance, the lucky, strong, and fit bears will survive to pass on their genes to the next generation and Katmai’s bear population will be healthier for it.

Why was the cub collected for necropsy?
Due to the high profile, unusual nature of the death, and the lack of scientific information on the sources of mortality in young bears, aside from infanticide and starvation, park staff decided the cub should be collected and necropsied.

What samples were taken from 868?
The head, heart, lungs, liver, small intestine contents, blood, abdominal cavity contents and hair were collected from the bear. These were sent to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the NWHC with additional samples going to the USGS Alaska Science Center.

What information might be gained from examining the bears?
If the bears’ deaths represented a new disease outbreak, then the examination could also provide important and timely information for wildlife managers across Alaska. By examining the bears, researchers also have the opportunity to:    

  • Test for rabies and canine distemper. Since rabies can infect humans, it receives a high priority for testing.
  • Test tissues for the presence of heavy metals like lead, human made chemicals like propylene glycol (antifreeze), and natural toxins like saxitoxin (the principle chemical that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning).
  • Identify and document the presence of parasites like sarcocystis, toxoplasma, nematodes, and trichinella.

After the cub was collected, its mother (451) returned to the spot where it died. Is that normal?
451’s reaction after her cub was collected was not surprising, although it is difficult to predict how mother bears will react towards the loss of a cub. During most instances when rangers and NPS staff have seen a cub die, the death has been quick and it was usually caused by another bear. In some of these cases of infanticide, the mother bears act agitated for a short time before they departed the area and continued to feed and rest as though nothing happened. At other times, mother bears have been observed returning repeatedly to the spot where they lost their cub, even days later. Bears are intelligent and individualistic. These traits probably dictate the broad array of reactions people have observed in mother bears who have lost cubs.

How big was the cub and 868?
The cub weighed 29.7 kg (65.4 lbs), it measured 94 cm (37 in.) from nose to tail-tip, and it measured 68 cm (27 in.) in girth. Measurements for 868 were not taken, but biologists estimated that he weighed 800-900 pounds (362-408 kg).

Will the cub’s remains be returned to Brooks River?
The cub’s hide and skull will be returned to Katmai for educational and interpretive use. The remainder of the cub will be disposed of by the NWHC lab. 

What is the risk that 451 and her remaining cub also contracted CAV-1?
According to Susan Knowles, staff pathologist at the NWHC, transmission of CAV-1 occurs via ingestion of infected urine, feces, or saliva. Animals that recover may shed the virus in their urine for longer than six months and the virus can persist in the environment for weeks or months. Bears are often observed investigating feces and urine of other bears, so it is possible that 451 and her other cub are also infected with the disease. 

What happened to 868’s body?
After biologists from Katmai National Park and Preserve performed a field necropsy on 868, his remains were left where he had collapsed and died. A short time later, a large bear discovered the carcass and fed on the remains. When NPS employees visited Brooks Camp on November 6, all that remained were the rear legs and portions of the skeleton and hide.

Can I see photographs of the bears?
Yes. Photographs taken at Brooks Camp of 868 and the cub are online. Some photos are graphic.

How can I support bear research in Katmai?
Research on Katmai’s bears is ongoing and the park has received several questions about supporting this work. There are many ways to support bears and bear research in Katmai. You can become a volunteer camera operator on explore.org or make a monetary donation to the park. See something interesting on bearcam? Add it to the bearcam wiki page for future reference. When you visit, plan ahead for bear encounters and learn about ways to reduce your potential impact on the animals.

Ongoing research on Katmai’s bears includes the Changing Tides project, a multi-year study to investigate the unique link between the terrestrial and the nearshore environment, specifically between coastal brown bears and intertidal invertebrates. At Brooks River, staff continue to collect data for a long term bear population and habitat use study. Staff also plan to begin a genetics and DNA study on Brooks River bears in 2016. Samples from 868 and 451’s cub were saved for genetic analysis as a part of this upcoming study.

bears, cub, spring cubs, death, Brooks River, Brooks Camp, bear




38 Comments Comments icon

  1. September 06, 2016 at 01:48
     

    Why are the pics from 868 and the dead cub that The Rangers had taken and shown at the KNPP flickr page dissapeared??? i want to show them to our new bear frinds at bear chat?? is this a kind of censorship???

     
  2. July 05, 2016 at 04:24
     

    How can I find out it 461 and her last remaining cub are still alive after the 2015 hibernation?

     
  3. March 22, 2016 at 08:48
     

    Did the park figure out how the cub past

     
  4. March 22, 2016 at 08:46
     

    Did the park figure out how the cub past

     
  5. February 11, 2016 at 05:08
     

    Is there an update on the cause of death?

     
  6. December 14, 2015 at 12:53
     

    Is there a way for the webmaster to remove all the duplicate comments? For instance, those made by Susan - Glenville, Pa December 01, 2015 at 02:59 Looks like she may have held down the return key, too long. Thanks.

     
  7. December 02, 2015 at 01:11
     

    Thank you for sharing your comments and explaining to us. As painful as it was to lose 2 beautiful bear, hopefully much will be learned to improve the natural life at Katmai!

     
  8. November 28, 2015 at 12:19
     

    Thank you so much for following up with this information for us. This was very emotional for all of us bear cam watchers, but it was also an invaluable education. Your work and dedication is very much appreciated.

     
  9. November 27, 2015 at 11:56
     

    Thank you so much RM and RR and all the bear techs. I've only been watching since July, have learned more and more each time I watched. I hope to visit one day. I appreciate the parks non-interference policy, it just makes sense to me. Can't wait til the cams come back on in 2016!

     
  10. November 27, 2015 at 11:56
     

    Thank you so much RM and RR and all the bear techs. I've only been watching since July, have learned more and more each time I watched. I hope to visit one day. I appreciate the parks non-interference policy, it just makes sense to me. Can't wait til the cams come back on in 2016!

     
  11. November 26, 2015 at 11:08
     

    Kudos sent to all the rangers team for the thorough prefessional job they performed on the dead animals..collecting data, samples sending them off to the research labs and including the cam people in th e results

     
  12. November 26, 2015 at 09:04
     

    Please extend thanks to all the Rangers and biologists that guide the care of all the bears at Katmai. I realize that intervention is not possible in all circumstances. The care and dignity that was shown with Angel bear cub and all the other bears at Katmai is an education in itself. We are blessed with the work that you do and Explore brings to us. Happy Thanksgiving. Lenoirdenantes

     
  13. November 25, 2015 at 07:18
     

    Thank you Ranger Mike for the very informative update. I appreciate all of what you and the other Rangers do. Thank you Explore for giving us the opportunity to view the bears.

     
  14. November 25, 2015 at 05:52
     

    Thanks for all you do. It has been a very educational year for me. I hope the mother/cub will be well.

     
  15. November 25, 2015 at 09:01
     

    Thank you so mutch for the update! i hope bear 451 and her other cub are stil well. i hope they make it.

     
  16. November 24, 2015 at 10:20
     

    Thanks Ranger Mike for providing the updates on both bears. There is so much to be learned about these magnificent animals and I am thankful for the rangers and staff there who monitor the bears.

     
  17. November 24, 2015 at 09:42
     

    Thank you again for sharing information with the cam viewers. I continue to marvel at how much we learn about bear biology and behavior via this valuable observational tool.

     
  18. November 24, 2015 at 09:21
     

    Great summary of both the events and the science that has resulted. You seem to have answered every question that it is possible to answer at this time. Thank you Ranger Mike for the update. I hope you and all the rangers and biologists working in Alaska have a great Thanksgiving.

     
  19. November 24, 2015 at 06:53
     

    Thank you for this, Ranger Mike. We are so fortunate the rangers at Katmai and Explore.org have provided the opportunities for those of us far away to observe and learn about these magnificent bears. I'm forever grateful to the NPS for the work it does to help preserve the natural world.

     
  20. November 24, 2015 at 05:10
     

    Thank you for the new information surrounding the two bear deaths. As so many other viewers, I remained glued to cams watching the heart-breaking cub's demise for nearly the entire time. As sad as it was, it might be the most amazing and enlightening experience I've witnessed in nature. For that, I'm grateful to Explore and the National Park service for allowing us to share in such an incredible experience, to Mother Nature who always seems to have the upper hand.. to the Katmai Rangers who do an extremely difficult job sometimes under trying circumstances but doing so in a friendly and professional manner. If the analysis had resulted in a disease or other ailment that would substantially harm the bear or other animal population in that area..would there be an intervention in those circumstances? Would it initially have to affect a rather large number of animals?

     
  21. November 24, 2015 at 05:05
     

    Thank you Ranger Mike and Roy for all you do for the bears and Katmai National Park.. Thank you for posting this information..

     
  22. November 24, 2015 at 04:11
     

    Thank you so much for the informative, detailed, and thoughtful post.

     
  23. November 24, 2015 at 03:58
     

    Thank you for all the work and effort. I also hope to see mama and cub in spring. I grew up in the country and saw this life and death thing many times. But this cub and family touched me greatly. Again, thank you. Kathy

     
  24. November 24, 2015 at 03:42
     

    Thank you for the updates. I pray for the Mother and remaining sibling of our little cubby. I suppose its possible that the sudden disappearance of the third cubby may be the same illness. Nature is hard sometimes

     
  25. November 24, 2015 at 03:15
     

    Thank you. You have a very tough job but at least the landscape is beautiful. I so enjoy watching the webcams. I didn't sleep much when 451's cub was dying. I don't post much on the site. I like to read every one else's post. I hope you all have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving.

     
  26. November 24, 2015 at 02:57
     

    Is is possible the bear that was eating 868 could get sick and die too?

     
  27. November 24, 2015 at 02:17
     

    Thank u for the update I just wish I knew if 451 and her remaining cub are OK watching that cub die was heartbreaking I know it's nature but still plz let us know when the remaining test results are in on the cub would like to know what else they learned.

     
  28. Pat
    November 24, 2015 at 02:06
     

    Can't help but wonder if a reason cubs don't return is from CAV-1. And wonder if Tundra may have been sick/compromised rather than bear attack when she died. So many questions... but thank you for what you have learned and shared from these two and will, hopefully, shed light on future discoveries.

     
  29. November 24, 2015 at 01:35
     

    Thanks for the update. Sad for all but this is nature and thanks to the park and Rangers for following the rules. The best part was watching nature in full force. Thanks for all the the updates.

     
  30. November 24, 2015 at 12:55
     

    Thank you Rangers. You're an incredible group of people who consistently go far above and beyond the call of duty. Happy Thanksgiving!

     
  31. November 24, 2015 at 12:51
     

    Thanks, Ranger Mike, for this straightforward, informative and thoughtful post. The deaths of these two bears still make me very sad. But I'm grateful for the good science that is coming out of these events. And I'm VERY grateful to #bearcam and explore.org -- without which we would likely wouldn't have known about this at all. Thanks, as always, for all that you do to help us understand the bears!

     
  32. November 24, 2015 at 12:17
     

    Thank you for the Update and all you do. I wish I would have stayed tuned more to the Live Feeds after Sep., but maybe not, since it would have been hard to see the bears die, specially the Cub. I hope to visit Katmai soon. Again thank you for all you do. Keep up the good work. Hoping to see 451 and the Cub next year Healthy and happy.

     
  33. November 24, 2015 at 12:01
     

    Thank you Ranger Mike et al. and explore.com for this detailed update. The death of the cub was very hard to watch, but seeing the interactions of the sow and sibling with the dying cub was amazing (heartbreaking, but amazing)... The death of 868, wow...he was truly a most adored bear. It is a mystery, you kind of hope that once cubs make it through the cub-then dangerous sub adult years they will live on to the Otis and 410 years. I shall miss 868 masterful Brooks Falls Lip fishing. What a Bear! I can't help but think that it was something that he ate, late season rotting salmon...or something down in the LR or RW area, a toxic weed...

     
  34. November 24, 2015 at 11:56
     

    Thank you so much for the informative, detailed, and thoughtful post.

     
  35. November 24, 2015 at 11:33
     

    Thank you for the update RM.

     
  36. November 24, 2015 at 10:45
     

    Thank you for all this detailed information. I love the cams there and the bears and your chat sessions. You all do a wonderful job and best to you all!

     
  37. November 24, 2015 at 10:27
     

    Although it's life in the wild, it was very sad to watch...especially when both bears seemed so fat and healthy and ready for their winter hibernation.

     
  38. November 24, 2015 at 10:12
     

    I wonder what all the fluid was in 868?

     
 
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