During the pandemic, we masked-up and stayed home, leaving Alaska’s bears with the run of the place. And what did they do while we were away? Like a bunch of raucous teenagers, they threw a big party.
While there’s no scientific evidence to prove that bear behavior changed in response to the scarcity of humans during COVID, the few of us who made it out to popular bear viewing areas over the last 12 months witnessed some truly odd, “never-seen-that-before,” moments. It might be possible to chalk up some of the surprises to coincidence if they weren’t so widespread. Reports ranged from Lake Clark and Katmai to Wrangell-St. Elias, Haines, and Juneau. Some observations were merely interesting, others grim. But make no mistake, something went awry in the world, and the bears noticed.
Katmai’s Brooks Falls
On any other summer, the platforms at Brooks Falls would be elbow-to-Nikon with tourists nudging each other for the perfect spot. You’d place your name on a clipboard, wait for your name to be called, and spend your hour wedged between other humans, watching coastal grizzlies catch salmon in their gaping jaws. But with the exception of a couple weeks in August, Brooks Camp remained closed for the 2020 season. I stood alone at the upper falls, mesmerized by bear activity I hadn’t seen in more than a decade of guiding photo tours there. Thirty bears, an unusually big number for August, gathered in close proximity to one another, with only mild bouts of posturing or fighting over territory. Older, larger bears (many of whom are known by name from the Fat Bear Week challenge taking place on the explore.org web cam) allowed juveniles to take prime positions. I watched a trio of young bruins take over the top of the falls, without growling at each other a single time, standing paw to paw, looking only slightly jealous when one of the other bears was successful catching a leaping fish.
Beyond the noticeable increase in numbers of bears in dense, amiable (for bears anyway) congregation, sows with cubs also exhibited different behaviors. For the safety of their young, sows with cubs tend to hang out away from the action at the falls, which is comprised of sows without cubs, boars, and unpredictable juveniles. That said, they don’t mingle freely with other sows with cubs, as a pride of lions might do. This year, at the bridge several families came together. It was as if the moms invited all the kids to play in one backyard so they could be free to enjoy salmon roe hors d’oeuvres and wine spritzers. However, one mama bear chose a different path, another first in my time at Brooks. Instead of hanging out by the bridge, she took her two spring cubs to the upper falls during peak activity, a brave and dangerous endeavor. Sows with cubs tend to visit the upper falls when numbers of bears are low. Or, if they must fish the falls, they stash their cubs in the brush while they fish—keeping an eye on the cubs with repeated check-ins—and bring back salmon to the hidden cubs. This year, I witnessed a mama bear, with a huge fresh wound above her eye, lead her cubs through the crowd of fishing bears up onto the falls, where they stood next to her, learning how it’s done. In general, the bears at Katmai seemed at ease with each other and comfortable on the beach and at camp. More so than the rangers, who were noticeably on edge, off their game a bit after the hiatus.
Lack of air traffic seemed to have the most impact on bear behavior along the coastal section of Lake Clark National Park. Without the influx of day-tripping tourists, only a scant number of planes circled overhead or landed on the beaches. The previous year, the guides at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge had to work for their bears, driving ATVs long distances to view the same handful of bruins again and again. Dave Rasmus, a veteran guide at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, said, “It appeared the bears were a little more relaxed due to less air traffic noise and fewer people viewing them. They seemed to hang out longer, playing or relaxing in the courtyard at camp.” While he noted that the numbers of bears in the area remained typical, he remarked that the number of active fishing bears at the mouth of the river had more than tripled. “During the salmon run, on average, we get three to four fishing bears. This year, we had 10.”
During my visit to the lodge, Rasmus alerted me to another astonishing occurrence—something that no ranger or guide had reported in more than 40 years. A sow with a spring cub of her own adopted a second-year cub that had been abandoned over the winter and had somehow managed to survive. Over the opening months of the summer, the older cub had been spotted working its way into the vicinity of the sow with her cub, getting closer each day, and sometimes getting chased off. Persistence paid off though, and soon, the older cub was seen playing with the spring cub. Shortly after, the sow was found nursing both cubs.
The previous year in 2019, I photographed Argo, an older sow with her three spring cubs. As a mom, she appeared attentive to her offspring, turning aggressive when other bears approached her brood. This year, she was found solo. Two of the cubs were never spotted again and are presumed dead. The third, the older cub mentioned above, found his new home. Typically, cubs will stay with their mom until they are two-and-a-half, sometimes even three years old. While it’s not unusual for a sow to abandon her cubs before that in order to go into estrus again and mate, it’s extremely rare for a sow with her own spring cub to adopt an older cub.
As it happens, on the 2020 trip to Lake Clark, I brought my family to see the bears. My son, who we adopted from foster care when he was two, joined me on the trek to find and photograph the story. Now 15 years old, he spotted the bears first, peering out from the tall grasses on the rise next to us as we walked the beach. For three hours, we observed the bears. They foraged. And then, in what can only be described as a magical moment, the sow sat down 20 yards from us and nursed both cubs, biological and adopted—younger and older, for 30 minutes. When the cubs finished, the trio took a nap, with the adopted cub lying on top of his mom.
Cruise ship docks remained empty in 2020. Restaurants closed. The annual Bald Eagle Festival was canceled. Haines weathered a crushed economy, a devastating landslide, and an onslaught of aggressive bear behavior. In August, resident and local guide Rustin Gooden was 40 miles in on a 50-mile bike ride when he was charged. “It was probably 100 feet away,” he said. “I jumped off the bike and put it in front of me and started yelling. I used the bike as a buffer. I could smell the bear’s fetid breath as it stopped its charge within feet of me,” Gooden said. “It felt like a freight train was barreling down the tracks and I wasn’t going to get over in time. She went up on her hind legs and started growling. I backed up to put some distance between us, keeping the bike over my head.” Gooden made it about 50 feet from her when her cubs joined her. “Momma bear came at me for another charge, and I saw my life ending. I just knew the second those babies came up onto the road that she was going to clobber me.” Gooden credited the “bonnet-wearing super-hero ladies” in an approaching car for disrupting the second charge. Like a true Alaskan, Gooden finished his ride home and said, “I feel so alive and tired and happy to be alive.”
Alaska magazine columnist Nick Jans reported similar atypical aggression and greater sightings over the summer in Haines. About half an hour after he’d finished a bike ride, he hopped in his car to drive the same road. A brown bear cub launched out of the brush, and then, “mom exploded out of the fireweed in an all-out, incoming charge,” Jans said. “If I hadn’t punched the gas, she would have rammed the driver’s side door.” She chased after him, until Jans reached his driveway, where he found yet another grizzly seemingly waiting for him. Jans cited this as just an example of what he called a “freakishly high number of ursine sightings and encounters over a three-week period.” Instead of the occasional sighting, Jans lost count after spotting more than 20 bears within a mile radius of his home. And while Haines bears vary in temperament, something was noticeably off in 2020. Bears tore into metal storage units, sheds, septic tanks, and vehicles. In legal defense of life and property, more than 24 bears had been killed by fall, double the previous record. A few months later in the middle of winter, a backcountry skier accidentally disturbed a den above Chilkoot Lake and was mauled by a bear before being evacuated by the U.S. Coast Guard. Add the COVID impact to a failed blueberry season and sluggish salmon run, and the bears reacted in a negative way. Similar results were seen in other parts of Southeast, including Juneau, which received a record number of 679 calls regarding “problem” bears well before the end of 2020.
As for fatalities, 2020 ended with two deaths from brown bear attacks, one in Hope and the other in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the first ever there. In comparison, there were a grand total of seven deaths by brown bears in Alaska over the last decade, with zero occurring in 2019.
The last reported death in 2020 was that of an alpaca named Caesar after a wild brown bear broke into his enclosure at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage. The bear tunneled under the perimeter fence and tore through the cedar split rail to get to the alpaca. It was the first fatal attack on a zoo animal at the park.
When all is said and done, it’s impossible to know whether or not the ebb of human impact on wild places during COVID in 2020 directly caused these anomalies. And, while I can only speculate, I believe the bears noticed our absence and took the opportunity to throw an epic party, with some bruins behaving better than others, in a season like no other.