Katmai National Park: Bear fight!

Brooks Camp brown bears
151 Walker and 503 play fighting

“Oh, sounds!”

It was September 9, and we were on the Brooks Falls Platform, where two Katmai Park Rangers, Dave and Becca, were broadcasting a “Play-by-Play” streaming video for the Bear Cams audience, with Becca narrating the activity.  Dale and I were listening as well, hoping to learn a little more about Brooks Falls bears.

Our attention was on two young animals, 151 Walker and 503, roughhousing downriver, but loud roars, plus Becca’s exclamation of “Oh, sounds!”  brought us back to the falls.  It was a bear fight!

By the time it got our attention, the altercation was in full swing.  Bears 474 and 32 Chunk, two large adult males who frequent the falls, were standing on their hind legs swiping at each other like boxers.

Bear 474 (facing us), and 32 Chunk

In a swift maneuver, 474 grabbed Chunk from behind and sunk his claws and teeth into Chunk’s back.

“Oh snap!  This just got real!” is what Bear 68, in the background, is totally thinking

474 shook his his head violently as if trying to rip the fur from 32’s body.

Brooks Camp brown bears

32 roared, furious, and dragged 474 through the water while trying to extricate himself from those teeth and claws:

Brooks Camp brown bears

 

Brooks Camp brown bears

 

Several bears, including another large male known as Bear 68, watched the fight with interest, but only one took action—Otis the awesome, who broke it up.

Brooks Camp brown bears
Otis means business
Brooks Camp brown bears
“Knock it off, dumbasses”

With Otis’ approach, 474 and Chunk separated.  They continued to growl and posture, but the conflict was essentially over.  It lasted less than a minute.

Brooks Camp brown bears

You should absolutely watch the video of the fight.  It starts with Bears 151 and 503 sparring and then switches to 32 Chunk and 474 when the commotion starts.  The clip displays the drama of the altercation but also offers a great contrast between play versus real fighting, and it puts into perspective just how large adult brown bears are.  151 and 503 are also fun to watch, and it’s especially entertaining to see their reaction to the fight.

Post-fight analysis

Why did it happen?

Since the two combatants couldn’t participate in the postmortem discussion, the cause of the conflict is pure speculation, but here’s what we know:

  • 474 and 32 were fishing in close proximity.
  • 474 caught a fish.
  • 32 moved toward 474, perhaps to steal his fish; perhaps not.
  • Either way, 474 took offense and it was on.  
Who won?

It looked to our untrained eyes like 474 won the bout, but Ranger Becca said, “It can be difficult to tell who is the winner and who is the loser….Occasionally it is the bear who walks away first that has asserted himself as the more dominant bear.”  By turning his back on 474, 32 may have communicated that he’s got the upper hand, and, while dominance at Brooks Falls fluctuates from day to day and hour to hour based upon which bears are present, 32 Chunk has consistently been one of this year’s most dominant bears.

Why did Otis intervene?

The Bear Cam blog, which recaps Bear Cam highlights weekly, asked Park Ranger Dave why Otis might have broken up the fight.  Dave said it’s doubtful that Otis was defending 32 Chunk, the implication being that brown bears aren’t known for their loyalty or heroics.  Instead, Ranger Dave said, “he likely felt that the fight was disturbing his fishing.”  Reason enough.

Brooks Camp brown bears
“I’m too old to put up with your crap”
Was anyone injured?

I know that conflict is part of the job when you’re a large, dominant boar working alongside other ginormous males,  but I found myself near tears as 32 Chunk struggled to break free.  It looked like he was suffering, and it was hard to watch.

Taking arbitrary human emotions out of the equation, however, bears aren’t fragile creatures.  Chunk’s a tough guy, and his long-term mental and physical health was probably unscathed.  Both he and 474 sustained what appeared to be only minor wounds, and they both continued to fish the falls without further violence.

Brooks Camp brown bears
474 doesn’t appear to be concerned about those chest wounds as he eats his salmon

The fact is, bears are incredibly resilient.  Two Katmai National Park blog posts highlight this fact, discussing how several bears have survived injuries as severe as a broken jaw and a fractured skull.

What’s real and what’s play?
Brooks Camp brown bears
151 Walker and 503, playing

It’s not fully understood why some animals play, but young bears are one of the most playful creatures around.   They wrestle, spar, tumble, and romp.  The National Park Service writes, “Bears hone survival skills by engaging in play.  Play-fighting can improve the strength, speed, coordination, and muscle-memory needed during real fights for survival with other bears.”

We saw lots of bear play:

Brooks Camp brown bears
These two cubs wrestled near the bridge until mom told them to cut it out and come to dinner…
Brooks Camp brown bears
“Aww, mom, we don’t wanna”

We watched these three subadults run and play along the beach for quite a while:

Brooks Camp brown bears

 

 

Bears typically stop playing when they reach adulthood, and when they fight, it’s usually for real.  All-out bear brawls are fairly uncommon, however, because they possess serious strength and weapons and can dispense devastating injuries upon one another.  Whenever possible, they avoid physical combat, instead communicating dominance and temperament with body language and vocalizations.  When the rules are followed, both parties in the communication chain can avoid confrontation.  And basically there’s only one rule: dominant bears get what they want, and the rest of the bear community just accepts it.  It works because most bears want to live to fish another day.

~~~~~

It was striking to see the difference between play and real fighting across the span of just a few minutes.  The sparring between 151 and 503 looked intense until we saw a real fight break out.  We consider ourselves fortunate to have witnessed such a raw display of power but also glad that no bears were seriously injured in the process!