Katmai’s Fat Bear Junior competition kicks off this week

a brown bear
A brown bear in Katmai National Park (Courtesy explore.org)

Fat Bear Week, the annual celebration of brown bears gearing up for hibernation at Katmai National Park and Preserve, kicks off this week with its junior bear competition. Pitted against one another for the highest number of votes, four bear cubs will face off in a tournament-style bracket to take home the crown of Fat Bear Junior Champion. The winner has a chance to compete against their senior bear counterparts next week.

The junior competition began in 2021 as a way to get people excited about Fat Bear Week, the nine-year-old festival that brings attention to Katmai’s brown bears with the help of livestream cameras in the park. It focuses on first-year cubs and yearlings, or bears that are about 18 months old.

“Fat is the fuel that powers the survival of brown bears during hibernation, and a fat bear is a successful bear,” said Mike Fitz, a resident naturalist with Explore.org. “Fat Bear Week and Fat Bear Junior is a way for us to celebrate the success of brown bears as they prepare for hibernation. It also celebrates the ecosystem and the health of it that supports these bears, especially the sockeye salmon coming from Bristol Bay into the Naknek River Watershed.”

In addition to a pair of first-year cubs, this year’s junior bear competition will showcase a yearling cub and a singleton first-year cub. It will also feature a junior cub who was separated from her mother and raised by her aunt.

“Adoption is rare among brown bears, and the circumstances that lead to it are often mysterious or unknown,” Fitz said. “What I think led to the adoption this year was the sociability between those bear families and those mothers last year.”

Fitz and rangers at the national park have been keeping tabs on the bear cubs all summer. They can tune in via Explore.org’s livestream bear cams, which provide insight into the lives of the bears living near Katmai’s Brooks River Falls.

While this week’s focus is on the fattest bear cub, Fitz says that they shouldn’t get all of the credit. The junior winner will prove to be a hat tip to the mother who raised it. He spoke of the singleton spring cub who was brought up by a second-time mother.

“The cub itself wasn’t quite comfortable standing on the bank of Brooks River on its own, but the cub really wanted to be next to mom,” Fitz said. “Even when it was only a few months old and got out into the river, sometimes it would get swept downstream. We saw it fall over Brooks Falls several times this year. It’s grown a lot, its overall size shows that bear cubs single, they don’t have litter mates, have advantages because they have access to all of mom’s food.”

Located in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, Katmai National Park and Preserve is home to the largest and healthiest runs of sockeye salmon left on Earth. The region also has more brown bear inhabitants than humans.

“Each bear in Fat Bear Junior is an individual with a unique story to tell about life and survival,” Fitz said. “This is a really unique wildlife watching opportunity to get to know animals as individuals rather than as populations.”

Fitz says that Fat Bear Week not only showcases the health of the bears, but is a way to raise awareness around the world about the health of the Bristol Bay region.

“Each one of them showcases a slightly different way of living, a slightly different way of surviving, and I think that’s a really special opportunity,” he said. “When we watch wildlife, generally, we don’t know anything about those individuals.”

Online voting for the Fat Bear Junior competition begins on Thursday at 8 a.m. You can vote at explore.org.

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