Surprises of the Bear World

July 11, 2014 Posted by: Michael Fitz
Bear 856 follows bear 402 downstream of Brooks Falls
Bear 856 (lower left) follows bear 402 (upper right) downstream of Brooks Falls. (NPS/M. Fitz)

Katmai’s female bears go through a somewhat predictable cycle. They go to the den in the fall, hibernate in winter, and emerge in the spring. They mate in late spring and very early summer. They keep their cubs for 2-3 summers, den with them for one more winter and drive their cubs away in the spring. They nurse their offspring while caring for them and don’t go into estrus while nursing. These behaviors happen with regularity and are the “norm.” However, bear behavior is full of surprises.

The behavior of bear 402 is illustrating this now. As of yesterday (July 10, 2014) she still had one yearling cub. If 402 was following the “normal” pattern for bears, she would still be nursing that yearling and would not go into estrus. However, bear 856 (a very dominant male bear at Brooks River) seems to think otherwise. Over the past few days, he has been following her incessantly—just like he would if she were in estrus. I must note, that I have no evidence she is in estrus, only that the behavior of the two animals suggests she is.

Male bears can gauge a female bear’s receptivity to mating through scent. It appears that 402 may smell “right” to 856 even though she still has a cub. 856 has been following her non-stop for more than two days as 402 wanders the river and occasionally fishes. 402 has not been especially receptive to 856’s advances.

This isn’t good news for the yearling cub. 856 is not a bear that the yearling will want to get close to, even with its mother’s protective services. Last night, the cub was in a tree about 100 meters behind the viewing platform at Brooks Falls. The cub was seen in that tree on the night of the July 9, it was there on the morning of July 10, and was still there at 9 PM that evening. From what I have observed, 856 has not shown interest in the yearling cub, but this morning it was not there. Bears are very tolerant of physical discomfort, but eventually dehydration and hunger will force the cub to leave the tree.

Bear 402's yearling cub in a tree near Brooks Falls
Bear 402's yearling cub has sought refuge and safety in a spruce tree near Brooks Falls. (NPS/M. Fitz)

Meanwhile, 856 is still following 402 and the yearling cub’s whereabouts are unknown. According to the “norm” 856 should be ignoring 402. She shouldn’t be in estrus. It is easy to stereotype bears, but the ongoing story of 402, her yearling, and 856 demonstrates that bear behavior is quite variable and full of surprises. Not everything you see on the bearcams will fit the norm.

Update: July 14, 2014

402's abandoned yearling on the beach at Brooks Camp
402's abandoned yearling, now an independent subadult, walks alone along the beach at Brooks Camp. (NPS/M. Fitz)

856 was still following 402 on Sunday. Reports of 856 following a different female may have been erroneous.

I watched 402’s former yearling cub wander through Brooks Camp alone at 8 AM this morning. A ranger also reported seeing it alone on Saturday morning. 402 appears to have abandoned this cub. Why? I don’t know. Bears might abandon their cubs if the cubs are too weak to keep up or if the mother can’t devote the energy needed to support the cubs. I also don’t know if this cub is truly abandoned. Although very rare, mother bears have been separated from their cubs for over 2 weeks before reuniting. We haven’t observed 402 abandon a cub before, but this behavior is not unprecedented amongst brown bears.

It’s also important to note that 856 showed no interest in the yearling during the past week. His actions indicate that he is interested in mating with 402. He was never seen chasing the yearling or even investigating the yearling when it was treed near Brooks Falls. His consistent pursuit of 402 certainly didn’t help the yearling, but he may not have been the reason for its abandonment. 402 may have gone into estrus and abandoned the yearling anyway.

Is 402 a “bad” mother for abandoning her yearling? It would seem so from a human perspective, but we cannot define or label bears with our system of cultural norms, ethics, and morals. Bears and wild animals exist in a world outside of these things. 402 doesn’t have the ability to control her estrus cycle, no more so than a woman can. If she went back into estrus (which appears likely now), then 856 or any other adult male would be looking to mate with her. She would be unable to care for a cub while being closely pursued by a dominant adult male.

402’s former yearling cub should now be called a subadult bear since it is now appears to be on its own. It faces an uphill battle to survive this summer.


On July 21, after a courtship lasting about 12 days, 856 mated with 402 near the falls. This confirms that 402 was indeed in estrus and that may triggered 402’s abandonment of her yearling. The abandoned yearling, remarkably, found a new mother.

48 Comments Comments icon

  1. July 21, 2014 at 11:43

    @Stefannie: One of 402’s cubs from last year was killed by another bear. We don’t know the fate of the other cub though.

  2. July 16, 2014 at 03:35

    If I recall Bear 402 had 3 cubs last year. Does anyone know what happened to the other 2? I remember watching them and beadnoses cubs a lot last year.

  3. July 16, 2014 at 10:23

    Please keep us updated on 402's cub very worried about this little one. Thank you for all you do.

  4. July 15, 2014 at 07:04

    Thank you for your patience with me. For the first time, maybe I get it. Lol! It never entered my mind that any food you left for the cub would attract more bears and, of course, I know it wouldn't do for him to associate food with humans. I'm feeling a little better about it all and I apologize for my angst. Your patience answering has made me see the overall picture much better and made me still want to view the cams. Thank you for helping me understand. I'll settle down & hush now.

  5. July 15, 2014 at 06:16

    @Louise: In a place like Brooks Camp with extremely high densities of bears, it’s not feasible to supplementally feed one bear and keep others away. There are nearly 30 bears here and all are conditioned to investigate anything that smells like salmon or wild food. Any bear that receives food from people will likely always associate food with people. That’s a death sentence for the animal. Certainly there is a conflict occurring in the Brooks River. People want to fish and bears need to eat. Managers of Katmai acknowledged this conflict in the 1990s and proposed seasonal sport fishing closures on the Brooks River to reduce bear-human conflicts. The proposed closures met opposition so the park never implemented the closures. Allowing people to enjoy parks while preserving the resources of parks unimpaired is difficult. However that is something to strive for, even if it is impossible on some levels.

  6. July 15, 2014 at 04:21

    I have one more comment about this situation which is excruciating for many of us. I appreciate the rangers and the cams and Katmai. However, just now on LR we were watching a mama and two VERY tiny cubs trying to figure out what to do as 4 fishermen encroached on them. This is not natural. If this were a natural place, then no people would interfere but it is happening. It's not the first time something like this has happened including the first time 402 was separated from the cub and the cub wouldn't come down because of airplanes and people. With this stuff happening, it shouldn't be wrong to leave salmon scraps around the abandoned cub & let him think he found them rather than sitting back and observing while he starves and dehydrates. I will be quiet now, but it's hard to justify people already interfering with the bears, yet not helping this cub.

  7. July 15, 2014 at 10:15

    @Kathy: There’s no evidence that male bears know who their offspring is, but there is evidence that mothers and her offspring remember each other. Siblings seem to recognize each other as adults too.

  8. July 14, 2014 at 11:36

    Do you think the bears "remember" their biologic family after the offspring become adults?

  9. July 14, 2014 at 10:28

    This is hard to take. I think I wouldn't feel quite so bad if I didn't know that all over this planet, animals and entire species are at risk because of humans. It's hard to let nature take its course when we have made it so difficult for it to succeed.

  10. Pam
    July 14, 2014 at 07:17

    Nature is an amazing thing, it can be cruel but is also beautiful.

  11. July 14, 2014 at 06:53

    @David: You aren’t missing anything. The salmon enter the river in pulses so there will be days with few salmon and some days with many. On days with less salmon, typically more bears will be fishing at the falls. It takes them longer to get full.

  12. July 14, 2014 at 06:47

    Thank you so much for responding to my question about putting the bear in a sanctuary. I'm sorry for being so negative and wishing something could be done for the cub. It's just hard thinking about the baby and I almost wish I had never started watching. Unfortunately, it's too late for that. I respect what you and the other rangers do so much and I understand your position on the matter. Nature just sucks sometimes. Thank you again.

  13. July 14, 2014 at 06:17

    where are all the salmon at the falls.middle of july and few salmon and few bears? did i miss something?

  14. July 14, 2014 at 06:12

    Followed the same event, in the North Woods, Mn. with black bear, Lily. She abandoned her cub Hope, and went into estrus. Food was taken to Hope and she survived, and finally reunited with mother. Lily did have cubs in following Jan. It was explained at that time, that occasionally, with only a single cub, the female bears hormones kick in, and they will mate. Hope this has a happy ending too.

  15. July 14, 2014 at 05:47

    @Kelly, @Janet, and @Louise: Katmai’s bear management plan doesn’t allow the park to interfere on that level. I understand that it’s hard to watch and I know that the abandoned yearling has a low chance of survival. It may be cruel from a human perspective, but nature is not nice. National parks are sanctuaries of natural processes. The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. Preserving unimpaired the natural resources of Katmai necessitates non-interference with natural processes.  Death is as much of a part of the bear’s world as life. In a place as remote as Katmai, it’s just not feasible to capture and provide care for injured/sick bears or abandoned cubs. This blog post I made last year ( is my explanation of the reasoning behind the park’s policies. In that post, I wrote about bear 89. In 2007, many people thought that bear surely would die, but he surprised me and everyone else. He’s now a healthy adult at the falls. Given a chance, some bears overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they face.

  16. July 14, 2014 at 05:47

    @Margaret: It’s doubtful that 402 would reunite with her cub if she does mate. I would assume that she’d follow the “typical” pattern for a single female and go her own way. At 2:25 PM AK, bear 402 was still being pursued by 856.

  17. July 14, 2014 at 05:28

    thank you Ranger Mike for the update. I know it is the way of nature but it is had to remember that fact.. especially after seeing some of my favorite in real life while I was there in early July.. I will do my best to try and keep everything in perspective ..

  18. July 14, 2014 at 04:13

    Matt/Coralie: 402 had 3 cubs last year. One was killed in the fall by an unknown bear. So she went to the den with two cubs and returned in the spring with only one.

  19. July 14, 2014 at 04:05

    I agree with another poster, why can't he be taken to a bear sanctuary or somewhere until he is older? Or keep him in a sanctuary? I absolutely cannot stand the idea of him dying slowly from starvation and dehydration. How can he just be left to die like that? Maybe I'm weak, but this is ripping my heart out and it's too late to forget about him. I dread 402 coming back with more cubs in the future.

  20. July 14, 2014 at 03:31

    Is there any possibility of a bear rescue/rehabilitation group coming to get the baby cub to take him back to their location and try to help him live to be an adult?

  21. July 14, 2014 at 03:07

    Ranger Mike, Once 402 mates, would she then reunite with the cub for the remainder of the year until her next cub is born? Will 856 continue to follow her now that they've mated?

  22. July 14, 2014 at 02:59

    I know observers are suppose to be 'hands off' & let nature take its course.. but most especially since you have the webcams & so many of us & so very many children watch, can't you break protocol & help this poor abandoned cub? We would obviously think higher of the project & people involved for intervention.

  23. July 14, 2014 at 02:40

    Thanks Matt :)

  24. July 14, 2014 at 02:35

    Coralie: yes it is the mother bear involved in the "over the falls" incident. She had 3 cubs last summer but apparently returned with only the one this spring. I don't think it is known what the circumstances of the deaths of the other two cubs are...which might otherwise help make sense of the current situation. Spring cubs are usually dark brown, yearlings typically have a lighter color similar to adults...

  25. July 14, 2014 at 02:34

    @Marce: Adoption has been documented in brown bears, but it is extremely rare.

  26. July 14, 2014 at 02:16

    Could that cub join another mother and yearling and be accepted for better chances of survival I wonder?

  27. Pat
    July 14, 2014 at 01:46

    I have such mixed emotions... relief that at least he is alive AND that he found his way to LR! I was worried that he had gone deeper in the woods or worse died. Thank you Ranger Mike for the info and pic... as hard as it is!!

  28. July 14, 2014 at 01:36

    Is 402 the bear that had the cubs involved last year in the "over the waterfall" incident? Or did you have other sets of spring cubs around last year.....I was there then and curious if this is them. The cubs seemed darker in colour from memory though I understand they change colour throughout seasons etc

  29. July 14, 2014 at 01:29

    @Karen and @Anita: There are several reasons why we would not do this. Katmai’s policies don’t support feeding abandoned cubs and this would be extremely challenging, not to mention have irreparable consequences in the future. You can find a copy of Katmai’s bear management plan here: If that’s too much to read now, then please read another post that I wrote last year about resilient bears and why we don’t interfere: National parks not only protect wonderful things about nature, but also its harsh realities.

  30. July 14, 2014 at 01:20

    A Mama Black Bear was reunited with her cub after a week or so of separation. There was some "help" involved and I know that you cannot do that. The cub was brought to her. She readily accepted the cub, had already mated and in January produced a mixed age litter. Is this possible sans any interference by the Rangers for unification?

  31. July 14, 2014 at 01:17

    @Bandit: It often takes a while for a female to become habituated to a male and become receptive to his advances. Other bears would indeed show interest, if she is in estrus, but I have seen no males challenge 856 this summer. If he wants to pursue a female, then other males are not likely to get in his way.

  32. Jos
    July 14, 2014 at 01:11

    Sad the cub is abandonded after the reunion with 402 on the Monday evening. Fingers crossed that they find eachother again. Thank you for keeping us posted.

  33. July 14, 2014 at 01:10

    @Martina: I can’t say with certainty, but a 10 hour abandonment and separation, in my opinion, isn’t enough time for a female bear to start going back into estrus.

  34. July 14, 2014 at 01:07

    @Louise: Bear 856 is so dominant that he may court many females during the mating season. My comment about 856 following a different female meant that he was seen in pursuit of a different bear. It was not meant to suggest that the info in the post was incorrect. 856 was indeed following 402 originally and he was still doing so yesterday too. 402’s yearling cub has been seen on it’s own.

  35. July 14, 2014 at 12:47

    Yet again, a part of your job I would not want. Letting nature take it course. Although I know it has to. This news is heartbreaking. However, keep on keeping on all of Rangers. My respect and appreciation deepens as I know this cannot easy for any of you.

  36. July 14, 2014 at 12:45

    Thanks for the update! Much appreciated to all of you observing these animals. So much to learn...

  37. July 14, 2014 at 12:38

    Is there anyway to toss that 402 cub a couple fish to ensure that it has a little head start on sug adulthood?

  38. July 14, 2014 at 12:28

    Thank you for the info. #402 has not appeared to have been receptive to #856's attentions. Has she been observed breeding with him by the Ranger staff? Also as you say, if she is in estrus would not other male bears show interest?

  39. July 12, 2014 at 07:57

    i`m still thinking about 402 and 856 stalking her. Rangers Roy and Mike said something ...for what reason ever it seemed she has the right smell for him to mate. Could it be the day when she and yearling were separated for 10 hours "switched" something with her hormones? Only asking if it is totally nonsense or if one of the possibilitys why happend what happend. Postet this question at chat for Ranger Jeanne, but think she has no chance to keep up with all the questions since 402 showed up at the falls. So i apologize for asking here again but really want to know what you think about this.

  40. July 12, 2014 at 09:20

    Where is baby bear is.........

  41. July 11, 2014 at 11:51

    What does it mean in the comment that 856 was following a different bear from 402? If it wasn't 402, then who did the cub belong to? And where are 402 and her cub. Sorry, I'm just confused about it all now.

  42. July 11, 2014 at 06:21

    Update at 4:20 PM AKT: Rangers who worked at Brooks Falls today reported that 856 was following a different female bear, not 402.

  43. July 11, 2014 at 06:19

    @Marsha: I don’t know. 856 has mated with 402 in the past, and if he does mate with her again (that remains to be seen) then it would not be to his advantage to kill her future cubs. 402 has weened cubs before too, so some of the younger bears at Brooks River could be her offspring.

  44. July 11, 2014 at 06:04

    I was in Katmai in early July, and had the opportunity to Photograph 402 and her cub. When she was fishing at the lip for hours,she would be turning to check on her cub every 30 seconds. She was a very protective mother, however; I did hear stories about the yearling club being separated from her mother for hours. Please keep us updated Mike. THANKS

  45. July 11, 2014 at 06:01

    I was wondering, since 856 has harassed and then killed one of 402 cubs you think that this is 402 going into estrus while she still has a yearling cub and that this perhaps dooms all of her past and future yearling cubs?

  46. July 11, 2014 at 05:49

    @Martina: Frankly, I don’t know. If 402 is really coming into estrus and follows the “normal” pattern, then the yearling cub would likely be on its own. Of course, I am just speculating at this point. I have never seen a situation like this before.

  47. GK
    July 11, 2014 at 04:30

    Thanks, Ranger Mike. Another informative post from you.

  48. July 11, 2014 at 04:09

    Thank you Ranger Mike for the explanation. Have a question...maybe a silly one..but thinking about this. If 402 is in estrus means that she would ignore the yearling from now on? Or is it possible she mates with 856, he got what he want and let her go and she will take care for the yearling again if he was so lucky to survive until then?

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