As elections wrap up around the state, a more whimsical type of voting is getting started this week. A dozen brown bears in Katmai National Park are competing for the title of fattest bear during the park’s annual Fat Bear Week, and this year, rangers are using 3-D imaging to find out precisely who’s fattest.
It started out as Fat Bear Tuesday. Former ranger Mike Fitz noticed a Facebook comment marveling at a brown bear’s summer weight gain, and “a light bulb popped into my brain,” he says. “And I thought, you know, wouldn’t it be kind of fascinating and fun if we have the online audience decide who they thought was the fattest bear.”
Five years later it’s expanded into a week-long, March Madness style bracket, with thousands of people around the globe weighing in to crown one hefty bear the winner. Summer bear-cams hosted by Explore.org attract 19 million viewers from around the world, and day one of the bracket saw more than 13,000 voters.
Fitz says the wildly popular competition has helped put Katmai on the map and highlight the need to protect the bears’ habitat.
Brown bears on Katmai’s Brooks River spend all summer bulking up on sockeye in preparation for winter. Some end up over a thousand pounds, and many yearlings can literally double in size, according to Katmai Conservancy Media Ranger Naomi Boak. She helped pick the contenders this year.
“It’s an equal opportunity competition,” Boak says. “It’s not just the gigantic boars that are in this competition, but the single sows and sows with cubs and spring cubs and subadults and yearlings.”
Last year’s infamous winner, a half-ton sow named Beadnose, hasn’t shown up around Brooks River this year, or as Boak puts it, “She has declined to participate.”
But Boak says other well-known contestants are looking promising. “We have a sow, 435 Holly, who looks like the Michelin Man. She has been non-stop snorkeling,” she says. And she is huge. She is definitely a top contender.”
That’s not to say that Holly doesn’t have some weighty competition. “Bear 480 Otis, who is perhaps our most famous bear. He’s won this competition twice. He’s competitive. He is the hardest working bear on the Brooks River.”
More so than Holly, you ask?
“I’d say more so than Holly,” Boak says, before correcting herself. “I mean, he’s… I don’t know. I’d say they’re equally diligent in their work of getting fat.”
Like always, the ultimate winner will be decided by popular opinion. But this year, rangers are bringing in scientists to find out who’s actually the fattest.
Joel Cusick is a Geographic Information System specialist with the National Parks Service. He’s used to surveying parks buildings and archaeological sites, but on an assignment in Katmai this summer thought, “why not bears?”
Cusick’s scanner bounces laser beams off the bears to determine their volumes. The tricky part, he says, is finding one that will stay still long enough to get an accurate reading. “A scanner has to pass by the bear several times, if not hundreds of times, and paint the bear with points of light,” he says. “It requires about 16 seconds to pull this off on a very fast scanner.”
With the help of bear biologists familiar with the animals’ body compositions, Cusick used the volume measurements to estimate weights. He’s not pretending that the findings are perfect, but his report says they’re accurate within about 50 lbs.
In any case, it’s far easier than the traditional method of darting a bear with a tranquilizer and stringing it up to clock its weight.
“The ideal situation [would be to] get this giant scale put out there have the bear stand on the scale and scan them,” Cusick said. “That opportunity did not arise.”
This is the first season the park has done 3-D bear scans, but Cusick says it could be used in the future to compare spring and fall weights, indicators of the bears’ overall health. Cusick is sworn to secrecy on the weights of this year’s contenders until Tuesday, Oct. 8, when the winner of Fat Bear Week is announced.