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October 13, 2019

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Fat is fabulous for Alaska’s grizzly bears

Alaska grizzly bears packing on kilos for the winter are competing for more than the season’s last salmon. They are also vying for the title of the state’s fattest bear.

Fat Bear Week has become a national Internet sensation, pitting individual bears against each other in an online voting contest. This year’s event, organized by Katmai National Park and Preserve, started with 12 bears.

As of Monday morning, the remaining contenders were Lefty, Grazer and Holly, a bear that gained fame a few years ago for adopting an abandoned cub. The process of elimination concludes with a final round and a champion selected on Tuesday.

At Katmai, a park in southwestern Alaska known for its bountiful salmon runs and the huge grizzlies that feed on them, Fat Bear Week is an annual highlight.

“It’s something that appreciates fatness,” said Naomi Boak, a conservancy media ranger at Katmai.

Katmai’s bears need to build body mass before retreating to their hibernation dens in late October or early November.

In summer, the bears congregate at the park’s Brooks River to gorge on salmon. By the time they are ready to waddle into the mountains for their winter sleep, male grizzlies can tip the scales at over 454 kilograms, and females at more than 272kg. They need that heft. During hibernation, rangers say, bears typically lose about a third of their body weight.

“They work so hard to be so fat to survive the winter,” Boak said.

The week-long contest started in 2014 as a one-day event called Fat Bear Tuesday. Park officials expanded it the following year. More than just fat-worshiping fun, the celebration is a valuable way to promote the park and educate the public, Boak said.

This year’s heavyweight contenders, still plucking salmon out of Brooks River, have had plentiful food supply, Boak said. But Alaska’s warming trend, including its just-ended, record-hot summer, might be interfering with the bears’ eating habits.

When Katmai’s July temperatures approached 32.2 degrees Celsius, bears stopped fishing and started trying to beat the heat, not easy for fat animals with thick, shaggy coats, Boak said.

Bear fans who miss the chance to vote for their fat favorites will have other opportunities to keep tabs on the Katmai’s most charismatic critters. The park operates a live-stream “bear cam” that attracts millions of viewers each year.


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