Biologists: Venerable Katmai bear unlikely to survive the winter

Posted: Thursday, October 05, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- As the last tourists left Katmai National Park and Preserve this fall, the one-time lord of Brooks River came struggling back for what could well be his last hurrah.

Some people already had given up for dead the old brown bear known as Diver. But there he was Sept. 18, scavenging red salmon carcasses from the river.

Camp manager Mark Wagner noticed Diver's trademark Mickey Mouse ears right away but waited until he could see the old ''scar saddle'' on the bear's back to confirm that it was Diver.

''There's no doubt it's him,'' Wagner said. ''He showed up about half an hour after camp closed. He hasn't been here since May 14.''

That spring sighting somewhat surprised Katmai park rangers and bear enthusiasts.

When last seen in fall 1999, Diver looked to be on his last legs. He was gaunt and creaking when he showed up at the river to scarf down the carcasses of dead and rotting salmon.

The skin and brains he stripped from those fish helped him put on weight, but he didn't look all that healthy heading into winter and hibernation.

''He looked really bad,'' Wagner said. ''We kind of hold our breath every year. He's got to be pushing 35.''

For a grizzly bear in the wild, 35 years is ancient.

That Diver made it through hibernation last winter was a testament to his will to survive. That he makes it through yet another winter beneath the snows is almost too much to ask.

''He's moving really slow now,'' Wagner said. ''His whole back end is arthritic. I don't think he has any teeth left. I don't think he can catch and kill healthy fish.''

Diver once was the biggest, baddest bear on the river.

In his prime, he was 1,000 pounds of dominance. Other bears scurried out of his way. They knew better than to tangle with Diver. In the world of the grizzly bear, confrontations often lead to injury or death.

Brooks River spectators have seen it time and again. Big, old boars like Diver killing and eating cubs, attacking and eviscerating smaller bears.

The rules of survival in the world of bears are harsh and simple. The biggest bears do what they want, when they want. Smaller bears had better get out of the way.

But no bear can rule forever.

''Three years ago, (Diver) showed up really beat up,'' Wagner said.

Almost everyone believes that marked the end of his breeding years, just as there is consensus that the scar saddle on his back is the result of a battle for a female years ago.

The scar dates to June 1988, when Diver, according to a series of ''Diver trading cards'' that rangers had printed up in 1999, ''arrived at Brooks Camp with a gaping wound deep in the muscle of his back.''

Diver's name comes from his unusual fishing style. While most bears chase salmon in the shallows or try to catch them as they jump Brooks Falls, Diver went underwater to catch fish.

He was so proficient that salmon weren't all he caught. In 1991, rangers reported, Diver dived into the mouth of the river and came up with a beaver -- a fat, tasty snack for a bear in June.

Diver was in his prime then. Nearly a decade later, such deadly proficiency is a memory. Diver is fading badly.

His skin hangs loose. He limps when he walks.

When he beds down in the grass along the river, he has trouble getting up, so he has taken to staying in the water.

''Sometimes he sleeps three-quarters in the river, with his head on the shore,'' Wagner said.

Diver's vision, however, still appears good, said Wagner, who has watched Diver surveying his old haunt on what may be his last visit. There is no way of knowing whether the bear knows the end is near.

''He's definitely lost some muscle mass,'' Wagner said, and his hearing might be going.

''I really haven't seen him react to anything,'' Wagner said. ''He's been laying down right under the (bear viewing) platform, too.''

Biologists who want a hair sample for future genetic testing have lately been talking about the possibility of reaching down from the platform with a stick and simply scratching some hair off the old bear.

''We want to get a hair sample, because half these bears here now are probably his progeny,'' Wagner said. ''He was the dominant bear here for so long. He's been a big player.''

No more.

Probably the only thing saving Diver now is that the other bears haven't really noticed his frailty.

They see the massive frame and the potbelly that still swings beneath his middle, and they stay away, thinking that danger still lurks within.

''The other bears give him room,'' Wagner said. ''He's still a pretty good-size bear, but we don't have a lot of really big bears back yet.''

Some of those will show up just before freezeup, long after the last of the Brooks Camp visitors have gone.

Diver's chances of surviving another winter will be best if he is gone by then. If not, he could well fall victim to another bear, in much the same way he claimed victims over the years.

''He's moving so slow,'' Wagner said. ''We're going to hold our breath that he shows up in the spring.''

But nobody's counting on that.

''It was cold this morning,'' Wagner said. ''We had frost. It was probably 20 degrees overnight. It was a struggle for him just to get up. I think it's his hips.''

One cold morning could come soon when Diver simply cannot rise.


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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