Fat Bear Week honors Katmai’s healthy ecosystems

a bear
32 Chunk, known for his girth and a scar on his muzzle, has become one of the most dominant males on the Brooks River. But is that enough for him to win Fat Bear Week? (Cory Cravatta/via Katmai National Park & Preserve)

Escaping postponement due to the threat of last week’s pending government shutdown, Katmai National Park and Preserve’s Fat Bear Week is here. The annual event celebrates the success of the park’s bears in preparation for hibernation.

From its humble beginnings in 2014, the celebration brings attention to Katmai’s brown bear population via livestream cameras around the park. Viewers can watch the bears play, eat and put on pounds. This year’s event will showcase 12 male and female bears of varying ages.

“Of course, it’s all about celebrating the success of brown bears at Brooks River in Katmai National Park,” said Mike Fitz, a resident naturalist with Explore.org. “Each bear in Fat Bear Week is an individual with a unique story to tell about life and survival. It’s also a way for us to celebrate the salmon that support the health and richness of Katmai’s ecosystems.”

One of the bears competing this year is Chunk, a large and independent adult male whose behavior is enigmatic for a bear of his size. In the past, he was known for playing with other bears and waiting patiently for his serving of salmon. This year, though, he is using his large size to establish dominance among the others.

Then there’s Grazer, one of the most protective mother bears in the park. Although she did not raise a litter this spring, she has put her defensive energy into accumulating fat on her body.

There’s also fan-favorite and four-time Fat Bear Week champion, Otis. One of the oldest bears identified at Brooks River Falls, he started the summer looking extremely skinny.

“He has gotten quite fat since the end of July until now, he’s done quite well for himself over the past couple of months,” Fitz said. “Despite the difficulties and rigors of old age, he still has the knowledge, skills, and patience to find success.”

While the fat bears are the stars of this event, they shouldn’t get all of the credit. Katmai’s sockeye salmon, which have the healthiest and largest runs in the world, are the unsung heroes of Fat Bear Week. Fitz says that without the returning salmon to Brooks River Falls, there would be no Fat Bear Week.

“I think a lot of people, especially people who are outside of Alaska, they’ve heard of bears and they know that bears like to eat, but maybe haven’t considered why bears eat so much,” he said. “This is to help raise awareness for their behavior, their biology, and more importantly, to celebrate the health of Katmai’s ecosystem.”

In the future, park rangers and organizers of Fat Bear Week hope to highlight more of Katmai National Park’s bear population. They are always looking for new and diverse brown bear stories to tell that will resonate with the world.

“Fat Bear Week isn’t necessarily about who can win the tournament itself, it’s about showcasing the stories of those bears,” Fitz said.

Online voting for the Fat Bear Week competition will begin on Wednesday at 8 a.m. AKST. The winner will be crowned Oct. 10. You can vote at Explore.org.

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