Bears live in a world where profound hunger, limited mating opportunities, and protecting offspring can lead to conflict. They utilize a host of body postures, vocalizations, and common sense strategies like avoidance to determine dominance and settle disputes without physically fighting. However, not all conflicts between bears can be resolved by posturing alone.
On the evening of July 2, 2019, we watched two large male brown bears posture in the far pool of Brooks Falls. The more assertive bear was a very large male known as 747.
I watched and narrated his behavior during a live play-by-play broadcast, noting how 747 was trying to establish his dominance over the other large male. At the time, I was unsure of the identity of 747’s rival (bears at Brooks River are photographed and assigned identification numbers by park staff). After reviewing photos from that evening, I now believe the other bear is 68, a male first identified at the river in the fall of 2007. Sixty-eight was only a juvenile bear then, but has now grown to rival the largest males in size.
In the far pool, 747 directly approached and postured in front of 68, who didn’t challenge 747 in the moment. He mostly stood and watched. Their interactions for the evening weren’t over though. Sixty-eight couldn’t find fishing success in the far pool after 747 left for the jacuzzi, a lucrative fishing spot preferred by both bears.
Sixty-eight walked across the bottom of Brooks Falls, directly approaching 747 who refused to yield space. Seven-four-seven even moved slightly into 68’s path. Sixty-eight was not satisfied with 747’s lack of deference. He approached closer, directly challenging 747. They bellowed intense growls, then as each realized the other would not back down, the bears reared up on their hind legs and began to fight. This was no mild tussle either. It was an intense and violent battle for dominance where the power and strength of brown bears was fully demonstrated.
Ranger Naomi and I discussed the world of bear dominance and their hierarchy during a recent live chat. In the bear world, dominance confers many advantages. Dominant bears are typically the largest, most assertive bears. Using their size, strength, and sometimes fighting skills, dominant bears gain greater access to food resources and, if you are male, more potential mating opportunities.
Brown bears at Brooks River settle disputes most often through posturing and vocalizations. In general, bigger bears displace smaller bears, who are smart enough to realize they can’t risk a physical confrontation with a larger, stronger bear. Posturing, however, doesn’t always work, especially between bears of apparently equal size and disposition. Seven-four-seven’s initial bout of posturing wasn’t enough to intimidate 68. He called 747’s bluff, so to speak, challenging 747 physically.
The fight resulted in 68 defeating 747, who walked away bleeding from the mouth and frequently looking back at 68. Sixty-eight, in turn, paid little to no attention to the departing 747 and quickly began fishing, indicating he had established his dominance.
Seven-four-seven did not appear to be seriously injured in the fight. In fact he returned to the falls within a couple of hours and began fishing like nothing had happened. However, 68 made his point clear: I am more dominant and you will give me space. It was a bold and risky move. Both bears could’ve been seriously injured. Going forward though, 68 may gain greater energetic advantages. I don’t expect 747 to challenge 68 again this summer and maybe not at all in the future.
We watch bearcam to learn about and appreciate wild nature. It is enjoyable and entertaining, but what we see is no game. Bears at Brooks Falls compete for the opportunity to grow, reproduce, and survive. The scars and wounds they carry, sometimes fresh with blood, are symbols of their difficult and sometimes violent lifestyle.