Do bears like pancakes? This isn’t an intro to a joke but sure, they’d probably love to eat a sweet stack of flapjacks—especially if it helped fatten them up for the winter. So, no punch line here about certain things they do in the woods—unless it relates to Fat Bear Week.
Fat Bear Week is a tournament-style competition between the bears at Katmai National Park & Preserve in Alaska. A designated group of burly bears, as chosen by park rangers, are pitted against one another in bracket-style categories. It’s open to anyone wanting to vote for their favourite, most enormous ursine.
It started as an online tournament in October 2014 to celebrate the brown bears of Brooks River, home to some of the largest on earth. Park rangers at Katmai National Park & Preserve held a one-day event called Fat Bear Tuesday on the park’s Facebook page and the public loved it so much former ranger Mike Fitz expanded it into a week.
Since 2014, the park has awarded the Fat Bear crown to bears such as 747 (two-time winner and reigning champion), 480 Otis (four-time champ and fan favourite), 435 Holly (praised for her maternal instincts and her ability to balloon up each fall), and 409 Beadnose (another sow) who proves that you don’t have to be a big’n to win.
This is a single-elimination tournament. For each match-up, bears who voters “believe best exemplifies fatness” get nominated. The most voted for bear goes on to the next round.
From June through October, about 10 million people follow the stories of the Brooks River bears through eight live-streaming cameras on explore.org. In 2022, over 1 million votes were cast over the world from classrooms, offices, homes and even bars.
This calorie-driven competition is intended to highlight the accomplishments of the bears and also the ecosystem in which the bears can thrive, according to a release from the Katmai National Park & Preserve. “The Brooks River is part of the Bristol Bay watershed, one of the last great salmon runs left on earth. Without the Brooks River ecosystem to support an abundant salmon run, there would be no Fat Bear champions,” the release says.
Beyond the purely visual plumpness that might catch a voter’s eye (a quick and easy way to decide and there’s nothing wrong with that), there are other factors that the bears deal with when trying to beef up for hibernation, such as the gains in growth spurts of the younger bears or the underdogs with extenuating circumstances (a mother challenged with raising her cubs) – her ability to gain weight is harder than some of the others since she’s got a family (and herself) to feed. Older bears often have to compete with younger bears to keep command of their favourite fishing spots.
Rangers choose competitors based on the bears that are present at Brooks River in Katmai National Park in early summer and late summer. Contenders also qualify based on their life histories and if there’s enough photo evidence to illustrate that they’ve packed on more bounce for the ounce.
Read up on the 2023 Fat Bear Week bears on the Meet the Bears pages and learn more at fatbearweek.org. The early favourite was adult female 128 Grazer, who made the final showdown (108,321 votes), made against adult male 32 Chunk, (23,134 votes). Grazer was the final chunky champ and this year’s winner.
The prize? Besides notoriety, the winner gets treated to six months of rest and all the fat they can shove into their shelter. Even the rest of the bears are winners, able to survive through the winter proving there’s no (fat) shame in this animal game.
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