It's Fat Bear Week In Alaska's Katmai National Park — Time To Fill Out Your Bracket

Oct 6, 2019
Originally published on October 6, 2019 10:57 am

Who doesn't love big, fat bears? At least from a distance. And who doesn't love filling out a bracket where winners move on and losers go home?

Combine the two and you've got Fat Bear Week — a kind of Ursine March Madness, in October.

There are an estimated 2,000 bears in Katmai National Park & Preserve, a glorious and massive 4 million-acre stretch of wilderness in Southwest Alaska. Each year, the bears spend the summer trying to get as fat as they can to prepare for hibernation.

And in October, bear fans get to vote on who is the fattest of them all.

This year, the bears were whittled down to a bracket of 12 contenders. Four heavyweights had first-round byes. Voters on the park's Facebook page choose their favorite from each matchup. The winner moves on to the next round.

It's an Ursine March Madness —fans get to pick their favorite fat bear. Katmai National Park says Fat Bear Week increases public awareness of bears and the need for conservation.
Courtesy of NPS Photos

As the competition began this week, Katmai Conservancy media ranger Naomi Boak had her eye on two of what she calls "favorites." No. 435. ... they assign a number after monitoring the bears for a while ... and No. 747. He is "as big as a jumbo jet," she says.

"He was so big he looked like he was ready to hibernate in July. He's the size of two bears."

This isn't fat shaming, Boak says. It is fat glorifying as the biggest bear has done the best job getting ready.

"They lose a third of their body fat over the winter," Boak says. "So they need all that fat to survive."

Bear No. 68 has packed on the pounds needed for a long hibernation.
Courtesy of NPS Photos

Skinny To Fat

The Fat Bear Week competitors are coastal brown bears who forage along the Brooks River. They dine voraciously on one of the largest sockeye salmon runs in the world. There's a fascinating science to this annual gorging, Boak says. A hormone that usually inhibits hunger switches off in the bears this time of year.

Boak and her fellow media ranger, Brooklyn White, chose the 2019 competitors— a variety of bears that includes males, females and so-called sub-adults. Those are emancipated cubs that have grown up and spent a year on their own.

Boak and White wanted good before and after photos of the 12, showing skinny shots from earlier in the year and recent fat ones after feasting. Kind of a reverse infomercial.

Bear No. 775 (Lefty) gains pounds to prepare for the long winter — and a possible Fat Bear Week victory.
Rylee Jensen & Jorel Cuomo / Courtesy of NPS Photos

White says they also wanted bears that people outside the park had gotten to know after watching them on remote bear cams along the Brooks River.

"Many of those folks who, you know, [who had spent] time watching the cams, would already have a relationship with a bear they were seeing in the contest," she says.

Don't Cross A Line

The bear cams and the 5-year-old Fat Bear Week contest are helping people connect with what goes on inside the park and helping extend the park's conservation mission. According to Boak, last year, there were nearly 56, 000 votes for Fat Bear Week. This year, the park hit that number in the first two days.

Obviously, people like fat bears.

Park staffers make sure to get good before and after photos of the 12 contestants, including Bear No. 32 (Chunk).
Barbara Lutes & Anna Marie Gantt / Courtesy of NPS Photos

But there's a line, in the park, staffers don't like to cross. They try not to anthropomorphize wild animals in a wild place. That's why they give the bears numbers. Although bear cam followers like to add names. Like Lefty, Chunk and Grazer from this year's contest. Or last year's champ, Beadnose, No. 409. Boak says Beadnose is known worldwide, but this year, the bear is not defending her title.

"She was a no-show," Boak says, but she doesn't know why.

Beadnose could have been injured, died, or gone to another part of the park to fish.

Whatever happened, Boak acknowledges that Beadnose went out on top.

"She went out in a big way," Boak says, unable to resist one more fat bear pun.

This week, on Fat Bear Tuesday, a new champion is crowned. The first prize, says Brooklyn White, is, she hopes, a successful hibernation.

And, a lot of new fans.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And now to this week's big happening in Alaska's Katmai National Park. It's Fat Bear Week, Katmai's annual celebration of bears eating as much as they can before winter hibernation. As NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman reports, it's become a hugely popular competition.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Who doesn't love big, fat bears - at least from a distance? And who doesn't love filling out a bracket, where winners move on and losers go home? Combine the two, and you've got Fat Bear Week. It's ursine March Madness in October.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB CHRISTIANSON'S "NCAA MARCH MADNESS THEME")

GOLDMAN: Katmai's estimated 2,000 bears were whittled down to a bracket with 12. Four of the heavyweights had first-round byes. Voters on the park's Facebook page choose their favorite from each matchup. The winner moves on to the next round.

NAOMI BOAK: I'm going to talk about two favorites that I would keep my eyes on.

GOLDMAN: As the competition got underway a few days ago, Katmai Conservancy media ranger Naomi Boak singled out numbers 435 and the appropriately labeled 747.

BOAK: Who, just by coincidence, is as big as a jumbo jet. He was so big he looked like he was ready to hibernate in July. He is the size of two bears.

GOLDMAN: This isn't fat shaming. It's fat glorifying. These bears prepare for hibernation by eating as much as they can.

BOAK: They lose a third of their body fat over the winter, so they need all that fat to survive.

GOLDMAN: At Katmai, the Fat Bear Week competitors are coastal brown bears along the Brooks River. They dine voraciously on one of the largest sockeye salmon runs in the world. There's a fascinating science to this annual gorging. Boak says a hormone that usually inhibits hunger switches off in the bears this time of year.

Boak and her fellow media ranger Brooklyn White chose the 2019 competitors. They wanted good before and after photos of the 12 - skinny shots from earlier in the year and recent fat ones after feasting - kind of a reverse infomercial. White says they also wanted bears that people knew after watching them on remote bear cams along the Brooks River.

BROOKLYN WHITE: And so many of those folks who, you know, would spend time watching the cams would already have a relationship with a bear that they were seeing in this contest.

GOLDMAN: The bear cams and 5-year-old Fat Bear Week contest are helping people connect with what goes on inside the park and helping extend the park's conservation mission. Last year, there were nearly 56,000 votes for Fat Bear Week. This year, the park hit that number in the first two days.

Obviously, people love fat bears. But there's a line in the park they don't like to cross. They try not to anthropomorphize wild animals in a wild place. That's why they give the bears numbers, although bear cam followers like to add names, like Lefty, Chunk and Grazer from this year's contest or last year's champ, Beadnose, No. 409. Boak says Beadnose is known worldwide but this year is not defending her title.

BOAK: She was a no-show.

GOLDMAN: Boak says they don't know why. Beadnose could have been injured or could have died or gone to another place to fish.

Well, whatever happened, you can say she went out on top, I suppose. Yeah.

BOAK: Absolutely. Yes (laughter).

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

BOAK: She went out in a big way.

GOLDMAN: In two days, it's Fat Bear Tuesday, when a new champion is crowned with no real top prize other than a long and successful hibernation and lots of new fans.

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.