The Resilient Bear

July 14, 2013 Posted by: Michael Fitz

Watching the bearcams on gives anyone with internet access an opportunity to experience the dynamics of a bear’s world. We get to observe the playfulness of cubs, the intimacy of mating, and the satiation of hunger when a bear eats a salmon. However, when we watch the cams, we will also see some unpleasant aspects of the bears’ world. 

Cubs and younger bears may be killed by a larger, more aggressive bears. Older bears and injured bears may struggle to catch enough salmon to survive a long winter and lean spring. Injured bears often appear to be in obvious pain. These are difficult scenes to watch, and over the past few days one bear at Brooks Falls has obviously struggled with a significant injury. It may be difficult to watch this bear struggle with his impaired mobility, but like other injured bears he is also giving us a glimpse into the resiliency and adaptability that bears posses.

420 with a broken jaw in 2007 

#420 in July 2007 with a broken jaw and open wounds on his side.

In July, 2007, #420, nicknamed Genghis, arrived with a broken jaw and large open wounds on each side of his body.   Before these injuries, he was a fairly dominant bear often stealing fish from other bears and/or displacing them from preferred fishing spots. With his broken jaw, he was no longer very dominant. Although smaller bears did not challenge him, he would not challenge other bears. His injuries lowered his position in the Brooks Falls hierarchy.

435's yearlng cub in 2007, now 89 (Backpack) 

#435's yearling cub limped on an injured leg for most of the summer in 2007.

Around the same time in 2007, #435, nicknamed Holly, arrived with a yearling cub. The cub was limping noticeably, and it would put no weight on one of his front legs. With impaired mobility, this bear family was competitively disadvantaged. #435 would not visit Brooks Falls to fish and the cub would not be able to flee any threats.

Many people wondered, will these bears survive and will someone help them? Park rangers and biologists will not intervene to help an injured animal. “Bears injured naturally will not be tranquilized for veterinary care” (Katmai National Park Bear-Human Conflict Management Plan, 2006). Injured bears will also not be euthanized unless they pose an imminent threat to human safety. Will they survive? That was something, at the time, we could not answer.

Both #420 and #435 plus yearling modified their behavior to deal with the injuries. #420 would not steal fish in early July, but he still used his size to maintain a good fishing spot at Brooks Falls. By gingerly chewing salmon on the unbroken side of his mouth, he was able to maintain his weight and size. In 2009 and 2010, he was one of the most dominant bears at Brooks Falls.

#435 reacted to her yearling’s limited mobility by fishing around the mouth of Brooks River where larger, more aggressive bears are less frequently seen. She also appeared to move more slowly to allow the injured yearling to keep pace. By September, 2007, the yearling’s leg had healed. In 2008, the former yearling cub was seen as an independent bear and no sign of the injured leg. He is now #89 (Backpack) a young adult male who is frequently seen on the Falls and Lower River cams.

89 Backpack fishing the lip of Brooks Falls (July 2013) 

#435's limping cub in 2007 is now a healthy looking adult male.

This year #469, is frequently seen slowly moving around Brooks Falls. His left hind leg and foot are swollen. The bear moves slowly, using its three other legs as crutches. Even when standing still, the injured leg bears no weight.

469 eating salmon on the island downstream of Brooks Falls (July 2013) 

In early July 2013, #469 arrived at Brooks Falls with a severe limp. This bear often had trouble moving through the river and maintaining prime fishing spots.

We don’t know how this bear was injured, nor do we know when he was injured. Since 2001, he has only been seen in the fall, never in July. Perhaps this change in habit is a result of the injury. #469 may have to take additional risks around other bears and people at Brooks Camp in order to eat and heal.

These are three bears with three stories to tell. #420 and #89’s stories show how bears are able to modify their behavior and movements to deal with injury. These are adaptable and resilient animals. Of course, we don’t yet know the outcome of #469’s story, but he may yet provide us with another example of a bear’s remarkable ability to adapt, heal, and survive.

bear, injury, resiliency

10 Comments Comments icon

  1. Kelly
    July 03, 2017 at 12:51

    I too want to thank you for the unique opportunity to view some of GOD's awesome creatures in their natural habitat. These animals are so smart it further proves to me, my GOD is the one and only GOD and HE created all as described in Genesis. Thank you very much for this exciting glimpse into wild animals daily life.

  2. September 08, 2016 at 08:57

    I check the Bears every morning and evening. I feel guilty watching the salmon squirming while being eaten alive, but I keep watching. I wonder why the Bears don't eat the sea gulls nearby. In spite of my guilt feelings, I look forward to these videos and I'm grateful to the Rangers for providing me in land-locked Pittsburgh to see real wildlife up close and personal. Thank you!!

  3. December 18, 2015 at 05:31

    @Leslie Meadows: We don't have any new information to share besides what was shared in the post about the deaths:

  4. December 07, 2015 at 04:01

    Any news on the narcopsy of the cub or the older bear? I'm sure all of us want closure. All kind of wierd things go through our minds, poison,pollution, neurological problems,what did it ??? Thank you,Leslie

  5. October 23, 2015 at 03:06

    I would just like to thank you for all you do. This is my first year watching these amazing, beautiful bears. I became homebound this year but with my laptop I can see more then when I was able to get out. I raised 2 eagles at Berry College wonderful but they fledged so I had empty nest syndrome. I then found these fascinating bears wild and free not in a cage. This sick cub is hard to watch but I can't help but think how emotional this must be for this mother bear. Thanks again to all the rangers, cam op folks and any once else I left out.

  6. August 31, 2015 at 07:59

    Are there any updates as of summer 2015? Thank you

  7. October 20, 2014 at 07:05

    @wendy: Sorry for the tardy reply, but your comment caught me on a long weekend. To answer your second question—no one really knows why so few cubs survive into adulthood, but a host of possibilities can easily be listed. Bears, in general, have low reproductive rates. It’s not just food availability that affects cub survival, but also competition amongst bears. In some areas of the park where there are very high densities of bears, there may be little room for a newly weaned bear to find food without facing stiff competition from many other bears. Bears will also kill other bears. Mother bears do their best to ensure their cubs survival, but they can only sacrifice so much for their offspring. If a cub is too sick or injured to keep up with mom, then it might become abandoned. Accidents happen too. A cub can drown, or fall out of tree, or just get lost. There are a few reasons why the NPS doesn’t rescue and rehab abandoned and/or injured cubs. In the post above, I tried to articulate the many of reasons behind this. To summarize—1. Policy: The NPS aims to maintain natural processes in the areas that we manage. 2. Feasibility: There just aren’t enough zoos or rehab centers to care for all injured and orphaned bears. 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. Personally, I think that bears need to be given the chance to live like wild bears. If, for example, we had captured and sent 89 Backpack to a rehab center he’d likely be living his life in captivity instead of the life of a wild bear. If, to cite another example, we would have captured 402’s abandoned cub this year 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 I realize that it can be hard to watch an injured or abandoned cub struggle to survive, but that is part of the bear world. If 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.

  8. October 15, 2014 at 11:41

    Ranger Mike. There are cams out in the Northwest where have rescued cubs abandoned by moms or injured. They are rehabed with other cubs. They might have 6-7 time. I noticed on amcomment on the Katmai explore site where it said only about 4of 8 cubs will survive. why wouldn't the park service there do what is done in other areas with cubs? Also with such abundant food why such a high perish rate for the cubs?

  9. July 10, 2014 at 01:11

    A wonderful article...thanks!

  10. March 20, 2014 at 07:10

    Ranger Mike, these are three amazing stories you have written about. This past season was amazing watching backpack fish next to some of the big guys. I myself am anxiously waiting to see the outcome of #469's story. He sure was healing nicely last we saw. Thank you so much for all you do :)

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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