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NATURE: Fortress Of The Bears

Airs Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Brown bears on Alaska's Admiralty Island, which supports the largest concentration of bears anywhere in the world.

Part of the massive Tongass National Forest, Alaska’s Admiralty Island is home to an estimated 1800 brown bears, the largest concentration of bears in the world. Nearly 100 miles long and 20 miles wide, it is half the size of Yellowstone National Park, yet it sustains four times more grizzlies. The native Tlingít people call this island “Kootznoowoo,” meaning “Fortress of the Bears.”

A field of lupine on Admiralty Island in southwest Alaska.
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Above: A field of lupine on Admiralty Island in southwest Alaska.

A brown bear wading for salmon on Alaska's Admiralty Island.
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Above: A brown bear wading for salmon on Alaska's Admiralty Island.

It is a place where bears depend on fish, fish depend on trees, and the trees depend on fish-eating bears to spread the nitrogen rich bodies of salmon throughout the forest. Everything depends on the annual salmon run. When a change in the weather keeps the salmon from arriving, the entire ecosystem is affected.

A La Niña winter has cooled the water to two degrees below normal, keeping the salmon out of the streams and delaying the run. It’s the worst salmon season in the last 40 years.

As the bears wait for the salmon, they hunt and scavenge for anything they can find to supplement their unsatisfying diet of grass. The receding tide offers unique opportunities, and one young bear demonstrates a remarkable talent for clamming. But the feast is short-lived.

With the passing season showing no sign of fish, the bears become increasingly gaunt and desperate. Will the salmon finally make their way up the streams of Admiralty Island? And will the bears survive until they do? "Fortress Of The Bears" enters a world shaped by bears, trees, and salmon, and explores the delicate balance of their interconnected lives.

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Video

Nature: Inside the Fortress

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Above: Part of the massive Tongass National Forest, Admiralty Island in southeast Alaska supports the largest concentration of bears anywhere in the world. Sustained by a wealth of salmon streams, isolated and protected by their environment, some 1,700 Alaskan brown bears are part of a unique circle of life that has played out here for centuries. But this year, the salmon fail to arrive for the first time, and the bears get a bitter taste of what the future may hold.

Video

Fortress Of The Bears: A Desperate Mother

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Above: After a spring and summer with no sign of salmon, a mother bear is desperate to catch fish to feed her famished cub.

Video

Fortress Of The Bears: A Heroic Return

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Above: It’s taken all spring and summer, but salmon finally return to Admiralty Island to spawn.

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