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Bear 856: On Top Again

By Mike Fitz

This past week, one bear appeared determined to regain his rank at the top of Brooks River’s bear hierarchy. 856 appears to be big enough and healthy enough to show the river’s other adult male bears he’s ready to compete.
Bear 856 is one of Brooks River’s largest bears, and from 2011–2016 he was its most dominant. Last summer, however, he was unable to maintain that position, possibly due to a leg injury. As I wrote previously, the hierarchy at Brooks Falls was fated to shuffle. Each interaction between bears can help us understand the organization of the hierarchy a little further. Several interactions between 856 and other bears provide evidence that he may be, once again, subordinate to no other bear.

In the video above, bear 747 sits in the plunge pool below Brooks Falls, a spot nicknamed the jacuzzi. You can see him turn and begin to move out of the jacuzzi as another bear approaches. The other bear is 856. 747 is very large, perhaps larger than 856, but although size does matter in the bear world, disposition also plays a big role. 856 is consistently more assertive than 747. 856’s directed approach toward him is an obvious challenge: get out of my way or else!

747 doesn’t seem willing to challenge 856 in a physical fight. Under these circumstances, if 747 turned away then he would expose rear flank to attack. Possibly for this reason he stands his ground and only begins to leave after 856 appears to be preoccupied with a salmon.

856, in his hyper-dominant way, doesn’t let 747 leave without more conflict. Just before the clip ends, 856 chases 747 into the vegetation behind the wildlife-viewing platform at the falls. Several people on the platform witnessed the rest of the confrontation. They reported that 856 and 747 continued to posture silently, and 747 continued to remain submissive to 856.

856 has also confronted and challenged other large males, like 755.

Dominant bears have many survival advantages over subordinate bears. Dominance may not provide access to more fish when salmon are extremely abundant, but dominance and a high rank would certainly provide access to the most productive fishing spots when salmon aren’t as plentiful. When salmon are migrating at Brooks Falls, for example, some fish are almost always found in the jacuzzi, 856’s most preferred fishing spot. Salmon aren’t as consistently accessible in other locations like the lip or the far pool. At least one study, however, has found dominant bears don’t necessarily catch more fish than bears lower in the hierarchy. This indicates that bears utilize a variety of strategies to survive.

Dominance is just one route to success. Bears like 856 take advantage of their size and strength to make their living, displacing other bears from productive fishing areas and potential mates. As 856 continues to challenge other bears over the next few weeks, more bears will take the hint and leave him alone or simply avoid him altogether.

Soon, we may be watching the bearcam when the bears at the falls quit what they’re doing. We might see them stand and begin to move away from their favorite fishing spot. Then we might observe 856 waltz toward Brooks Falls. By avoiding his approach, the other bears demonstrate a level of respect for an assertive survivalist, one uses size and aggression to get him what he wants.