Fat, fatter, cutest

fat bear

Once it was left to scientists and big-game guide to judge the size of grizzly bears in Alaska, but in the age of information, Katmai National Park and Preserve came up with a better, online idea:

“Fat Bear Week.”

Started five years ago, Fat Bear Week allows people around the world to monitor Katmai “bear cams” and vote their opinion on the fattest bear visiting the comparatively tiny Brooks River drainage near the western edge of the 6,400-square-mile reserve.

Whether the winner of the fattest bear voting will actually be the fattest bear is anyone’s guess. Last year, NPR reported, “Bear 409 was crowned the ‘Fattest Bear.’ Social media users seemed to concede that 747 was bigger, but they just liked 409’s apparent backstory: a single mom trying to make it in the wild.”

The competition is all good fun, and the Park Service says it is attracting a growing number of fans for the park.

“Thanks to the tremendous popularity of Katmai’s webcams, the audience for Fat Bear Week gets bigger every year,” the park announced in a Monday media statement. “The live streams allow millions of people around the world to gain virtual access to this remote park and its abundant wildlife.”

The claim of “abundant wildlife” in Katmai, as in most of Alaska, is a popular northern myth. The park has a healthy number of bears, but moose and caribou numbers are low. So low that on the outer coast wolves prey on sea otters, seals and fish, and “do not rely as heavily on ungulate populations like moose and caribou,” according to a Park Service outline for a coastal wolf study.

Those wolves do not rely on the standard Alaska prey because of their low numbers. Katmai’s population of grizzly bears is significant, but as with most wildlife populations in Alaska, total numbers are seldom comparable to populations in warmer climes.

With about 500 bears per 1,000-square-kilometers of park and preserve, Katmai has the highest, documented, brown/grizzly bear population in North America. But the density is only about half that of black bears estimated in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.

Alaska’s short growing season and long, cold winters serve to hold down wildlife numbers in keeping with the metabolic theory of ecology, but many continue to push the idea that because Alaska is almost wholly undeveloped it is a land of wildlife abundance.

Beating the cold dark

Bears, which hibernate for the winter, have the best of it in the north. They sleep through the snowy season waiting for the coming of spring with its green sedges and summer salmon while moose and caribou struggle to find food and even in the kindest of years starve their way through the cold, dark months hoping to live to spring.

Fat is a generally short-term phenomenon in the wilds of the Alaska where life and death is a constant struggle, not a game. Games are for people who’ve fortunately managed to remove themselves from the struggles of life in the wild.

The Fat Bear game kicks off on Wednesday.

“Not even the fabled magic mirror knows who will be crowned the fattest bear on the Brooks River because you get to decide instead!” the park statement said. “Only time and voters on Katmai National Park and Preserves Facebook page will tell.

“The annual March Madness-style competition…pits some of the well-known bears of the Brooks River against one another for the title of 2019 Fattest Bear…..The bear whose photo receives the most likes will advance to the next round, until one bear is crowned ‘Fattest Bear’ on Oct. 8.”

Bears need these large stores of fat to survive hibernation or “their Sleeping Beauty impersonations” as the park put it, adding that bears are entering “hyperphagia this time of year, a state in which they eat nearly non-stop; hopefully no witches show up with suspect looking apples during this time.”

Hopefully no Goldilocks shows up, either. Hyperphagia has been suggested as a driving force that led a Katmai bear to kill and eat bear man Timothy Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huguenard on the Katmai coast in October 2003.

A California-based attention seeker, Treadwell finally got the attention he wanted after his death. The subsequent Werner Herzog film “Grizzly Man” detailed what The Guardian described as “the breathtaking footage Treadwell left behind – of bears in the wild, and of his own psychological descent. 

“Treadwell’s fatal error, Herzog makes clear, was to believe in a Disneyfied version of nature: for all his talk of being killed, he saw the bears as fundamentally cute. On camera, he strokes their noses, gives them nicknames like Rowdy and Mr. Chocolate, chides them like children for snarling at him, and tells them, over and over, that he loves them.”

Treadwell anthropomorphized the bears. Many of those who’ve spent a significant amount of time around the well-fed brown/grizzly bears that frequent the salmon-filled streams of Southwest Alaska confess that it is temptation hard to avoid.

Fat bears are especially cute.

“Top contenders this year include bear 747, whose name and heft conjure up images of jumbo jets,” the Park Service reported. “He faces strong competition from bear 435 Holly and bear 128 Grazer, two females that have been very successful in packing on the pounds and might even bring a new litter of cubs into their dens this winter. 2018’s reigning queen, bear 409 Beadnose, has declined to compete this year so it’s anybody’s game in 2019.  Who will you tell the magic mirror to crown victorious this year?”

You can vote at

“Make sure to vote to try giving your favorite fat bear a fairytale send off to hibernation!” the park service says.


9 replies »

  1. A slight tangent- ADFG management of the bears from Katmai down the Peninsula has been a huge success. Pilots who are in the air down there with regularity say numbers have never been this high. Way more bears than people on the Peninsula.
    As an employee of the Park in the early 80s it is hard to imagine a more dense population than what we had then. As Park visitation has grown the issue is more about people management than anything else. We were naming the bears back then- not sure that personalizing has ever been a positive.
    Am quite sure the reported ungulate predation is old news in Katmai. Very rare for calf to survive in my time there.

    • it does make one wonder whatever happened to the old idea of “ecosystem management,” doesn’t it?

      does anyone even think about it anymore? salmon management has helped to boost bear numbers sky high and augment wolves. both prey heavily on moose. moose take a beating.

      the part of the state is probably looking at very low moose numbers for a long, long time.

  2. “most wildlife populations in Alaska, total numbers are seldom comparable to populations in warmer climes”

    Another reason to celebrate global warming – warming is good for biomass and biodiversity, frost is not.

  3. Bears are incredible! I thought mentioning the caribou hungry/starving or not lucky to be awake during the winter might have been a bit mean . I’ve eaten a lot of winter/ early spring caribou and #1 they often look like like they are having fun and#2 they have always still had body fat albeit in small amounts but that’s partially because they are runners . Winter moose really do have it hard at times . Cranky . I’ve eaten some of those also and they get so skinny their flesh changes and becomes edible but unpalatable. Nearly Pure protein I guess.

  4. I always came away, after having spent time around the bears in both Katmai and Lake Clark, with the reassurance that they were always the line between a liberals fantasy and reality. It felt good knowing that all the liberal sloppy goodness of “aren’t they cute, if we were only nicer, bears are human to, etc. ” meant nothing. Finally, a place where political correctness means NOTHING. Like Treadwell, some will never learn. Very liberating. To all the fat bears, be proud, march on. Coffee, coffee, where is my coffee and jelly donuts. Whether Steve S. believes it or not, Winter is coming. Time to hibernate!!!!

    • Bryan,
      I was just up a summit in the Talkeetnas in my approach shoes the other day…less than two inches of snow on top.
      Used to ski the last week of September, but now it is more like first the week of November?
      Yes, winter will come to AK…but it comes later and leaves earlier every year.
      The ice on the rivers and lakes is thinner and winter travel into the bush is less reliable for dog sled and snowgo.
      We also seem to have a serious thawing event in December each year that comes with rain instead of snow.
      It starts to look more like New England than Alaska, but there is always the short days to remind us where we live.

      • “The Arctic is changing pretty dramatically right now and that’s something we need to get into,” said Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado who will take part in the expedition…
        Recent changes in the jet stream — a current of air that circles and insulates the Arctic like a giant thermos — have allowed warm, moist winds from low latitudes to move north.”

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