It’s high time to devour 4,500-calorie salmon.
The live webcams along Katmai National Park’s Brooks River — set in remote Alaska and operated by the wildlife streamers explore.org — just came online for the 2019 season. For the next few months brown bears will wolf down copious amounts of salmon as they fatten up, some in extreme ways, in preparation for the winter’s long, callous hibernation.
The bears grew impressively fat in 2018, and global viewers may witness a similar plumping up of the ravenous omnivores this summer and fall. Bear 409, also known as “Beadnose,” was crowned the park’s Fat Bear Week champion last October, after a remarkable transformation.
“Bears benefitted from the abundance of fish,” said ecologist Mike Fitz, a former park ranger at Katmai National Park who now reports on bear activity for explore.org. “Nearly every one at Brooks River last fall was fat or extremely fat.”
Fitz is pleased the bears have started their return to the river. Each bear has its own tales of victory, defeat, and hardship. It’s a natural, live-streamed drama, set in the unforgiving wilderness.
“Watching bears and salmon always reminds me that these animals live in a changing, competitive world where survival and success are not guaranteed,” said Fitz.
As of June 22, explore.org had turned on five webcams, though seven cameras will eventually stream live from the Alaskan subarctic this winter.
The salmon run really ramps up in early July — so don’t be discouraged if the cams aren’t yet teeming with bears. Still, bears can already be watched fishing for salmon at the now world-famous Brooks River falls.
Bears to watch for this summer
Katmai’s park rangers and biologists get to know the webcam bears quite well, because many bears prudently return to the salmon-rich river each year — and some return for decades.
Fitz has already spotted a few usual culprits along the Brooks River, and noted some particularly intriguing developments to look out for this summer:
1. Bear 856
This tough bruiser earned the title as the Brooks River’s most dominant bear last year. Since 2011, bear 856 has forced other big bears out the most desirable fishing spots, and lesser bears often flee from his very presence.
But, in 2017, bear 856 appeared weak and lost his claim of supreme dominance to the younger male bear 32, or “Chunk.”
Will bear 856 still reign as king in 2019?
“We watched 856 regain his status as the river’s most dominant bear last year, but each year I wonder if he’ll be able to maintain that rank,” said Fitz. “He’s not getting any younger and there are several other large bears to contend with.”
Bear 503 has had perhaps the most dramatic history of any Brooks River bear.
In the summer of 2014, as a 1.5-year-old bear, his mother abandoned him, leaving bear 503 helpless — and likely to soon starve to death.
But bear 503 did not die. He was, to the amazement of park rangers, adopted by another bear, and has since grown into a large, healthy bear.
Perhaps 503, like bear 856, will mature into one of the more dominant males this summer.
“He’s grown a lot during the intervening years and has been largely playful and tolerant of other bears,” noted Fitz. “Five-zero-three still has a lot of growing in the next few years and even 856 played with other bears when he was younger, but I wonder how he will behave as his priorities change and he matures into a fully grown bear.”
Bear 402 arrived at the Brooks River with a rare four newly-born cubs in 2018. It’s challenging for cubs to survive their first year, amid dangerous males, competition for food, and the harshness of the Alaskan wild. Bear 856, for example, killed a cub last summer.
The question that looms large is how many of 402’s cubs will survive?
“I’m curious to know whether all of her cubs survived the winter and spring,” said Fitz. “We’ve seen a few other instances of bears with litters of four at Brooks River, but no mother has successfully weaned a litter of four, generally losing one or more cubs before their second year.”
Beyond these well-known characters, the bears’ diligent webcam watchers will almost certainly look for 2018’s conspicuously fat omnivores, the likes of bear 409, bear 747, and old Otis (bear 480).
But, let us not forget the foundational reason why any bears are there at all: the hefty salmon.
Bounties of the fish have come to spawn in Katmai’s river and streams. Yet along the way, some will meet the claws of the ravenous bears, who consume the salmons’ fatty brains, skin, and vivid red flesh.
“Salmon make the ultimate sacrifice in order to reproduce and without them, Katmai’s ecosystem would be impoverished,” said Fitz.