2019’s baddest, most dominant bear cam bear has emerged
Two powerful bears clashed in early July. Live on the bear cams, the males thrashed in the river as they vied for dominance. The victor, after holding down his opponent in the water, was awarded a coveted fishing spot.
But after a month of devouring 4,500-calorie salmon, neither of those big bruisers is the most dominant bear of the explore.org bear cams, which stream the brown bears of the fish-rich Brooks River in Alaska’s Katmai National Park.
The most dominant bear in 2019, though aging, is the singular bear 856.
Since rangers spotted bear 856 at the river in June 2019, the large male has been consistently assertive and confident, explained Mike Fitz, a former park ranger at Katmai National Park and currently a resident naturalist for explore.org.
“He frequently challenged other large bears,” said Fitz. “His reputation and size were evidently all he needed in most cases. Nearly all other bears avoided his approach.”
Since 2011, bear 856 has only been knocked off his pedestal once, in 2017. Perhaps injured, 856 backed away from other, larger, dominant bears, rather than challenging them for the most fruitful fishing positions.
But over the last two summers, the aggressive male has regained his status. This sustained run of dominance is impressive for two reasons. Bear 856, at nearly 20 years old, is aging. To boot, 856 is big — but he’s not the biggest bear. To overwhelm larger males, 856 employs what us humans might best describe as attitude.
“Life at the top of the hierarchy is tough.”
“While bears use their size to establish dominance over other bears, other traits like disposition and fighting skills play a large role,” explained Fitz. “Bears may be able to recognize that 856 is willing to back up his threats through fighting. He’s probably good at it too, because bears that have fought 856 tend not to challenge him again.”
The massive bear 747, for instance, regularly yields to bear 856.
This summer, Fitz has seen bear 68, the dominant bear that won the live-streamed, early July fight, interact with bear 856. These are both bears at the top of the hierarchy. But, 856 still holds an edge.
The two males, rather than fighting, have engaged in long “staring contests.” Sometimes, 68 will move slightly, likely to avoid an unnecessary escalation. But 68 certainly doesn’t run from 856, like many other bears.
“From the interactions I’ve witnessed, 856 is more dominant than 68, but 856 seems to sense that 68 is not a competitor to take lightly,” noted Fitz.
Bear 856 may eventually cede supreme dominance to bear 68, or someone else. It’s the way of things. But the proven bruiser will still likely be dominant for years ahead, even as he ages. There will, almost certainly, be fights.
“Life at the top of the hierarchy is tough. Status has to be maintained,” said Fitz.
“We’re seeing [the bears] in the prime of their life, a time that won’t last forever with them,” he added.