When the body of a female grizzly known as Bear 130 was discovered July 1 near an observation site in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve, nothing seemed unusual. Park officials believe the sow was killed by another bear and that the corpse was partially eaten by other bears, a reality of life among grizzlies.
But what makes? the death unique is that more than a week later, people from around the world are mourning Bear 130 -- better known to her fans as Tundra -- thanks to the live-streaming broadcast of Katmai bears monitored by viewers worldwide.
The famous Brooks Camp in Katmai acts as a bear sanctuary in summer, when salmon flood the Brooks River. Each July, some 70 brown bears fish and live at Brooks Camp, a National Park Service-run campground roughly the length of the 1.5-mile Brooks River that connects Lake Brooks to Naknek Lake, according to Troy Hamon, chief of management and science at Katmai National Park and Preserve.
But because of its remote location in Southwest Alaska, not far from the community of King Salmon, many will never witness Brooks River bears in person. That's why in 2012 the park partnered with media organization explore.org to offer live-streaming footage of the bears as they hunt and fish along the river.
"What it does, which I think is unique, is it gets access to a remote place, which many people wouldn't be able to afford a trip to," Hamon said by phone at the park Wednesday. "National parks in Alaska are pretty amazing, but to a certain extent, unless you are a local rural resident, it becomes a park for the rich."
The fuel-powered cameras run 24 hours a day. When first installed, the cameras ran off solar power, but the high-definition equipment wasn't getting enough power, according to Hamon. When it gets dark, the website often plays rerun footage, as the video quality worsens until daylight returns. The cameras don't turn off until extreme weather, often during winter, causes them to fail. They aren't turned back on until May or June, when they can be repaired.
Currently, four cameras cover Brooks River: one at the falls, another at "the riffle," a third along the lower river and one submerged in water, attached to a bridge, Hamon said.
Because viewers can watch the bears continuously, it's easy to get attached to individual animals, Hamon said. Each has its own "bear-onality," he said, making it easy to feel as if a bear is engaging with the viewer. So much so that some of the bears receive special names from viewers. One of those bears, Tundra, was named for the color of her coat. Another, Bald Butt, was so named because of a missing patch of hair on his rear end, said Hamon, chuckling as he explained.
"So he started going by Bald Butt, which eventually turned into BB. But about 10 years later, because this bear was a large, dominant and aggressive male that killed lots of other bears and cubs, people thought BB stood for bad bear, but most people didn't know the story." To park personnel, BB's official name is Bear 24.
Park officials are uncertain of the age of the dead bear, though they believe she had lived at Brooks Camp since she was a cub.
"There are some bears that, by the way they move and by their demeanor, can be sort of easily engaging," Hamon said. "She was one of those bears."
In an interview, Susan Carlson of Texas, who had watched Tundra since the beginning of the season, said the best part was seeing the bear stand while catching salmon. On the Katmai National Park Facebook page, park officials called Tundra a "favorite bear," and there are dozens of comments supporting that sentiment on a park blog post, which doubled as Tundra's obituary.
Commenters from around the world expressed sorrow, shared cherished moments and thanked the deceased bear for the opportunity to watch her grow.
"Very sad since we watch them on camera. It's easy to forget they're wild animals," wrote Kim from Alberta, Canada, on the blog post. Greg Ahlborn, whose Facebook page says he is from Michigan, wrote that Tundra was one of his favorite bears and thanked her for the memories.
"Poor baby," wrote Pia Cafiero-Roman. " ... Rest in peace Bear 130. All bears go to heaven."
Brooks Falls bearcam at Katmai National Park and Preserve: