The following appears in the November issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
One of so many luxuries the COVID-19 pandemic took away from us was March Madness, college basketball’s men’s and women’s tournaments that were cancelled just a week before their scheduled starts.
Fans filling out a tournament bracket and predicting all the games’ outcomes has become such a rite of passage that it’s a borderline obsession (17.2 million entries were submitted to ESPN’s contest in 2019). The format has spawned plenty of copycat bracket games, with fans voting on seemingly any subject you can think of. (As I write this, popular October-related contests making the Internet rounds include best Halloween candy. Expect some Thanksgiving side dish challenges this month!)
Katmai National Park and Preserve has found its own niche in recent years with the now 6-year-old Fat Bear Week bracket-style tournament, where resident plump bruins are voted on round by round until a phat, fat bear receives his or her coronation among the biggest and bulkiest of the den.
As the 2020 contest wrapped up in October, we caught up with Amber Kraft, interpretation and education program manager at Katmai Park and Preserve, located in the heart of Bristol Bay’s vast salmon runs that nourish the park’s hungry ursine fishermen and -women.
“Fat bears exemplify the richness of Katmai National Park and Bristol Bay, Alaska, a wild region that is home to more brown bears than people, and the largest, healthiest runs of sockeye salmon left on the planet,” says Kraft, who shared some details about the contest, the park’s role with bear conservation and a few tidbits about this year’s chunky champion, No. 747.
Chris Cocoles Congratulations on another great and fun Fat Bear Week. Did you anticipate this promotion becoming as successful and popular as it’s been?
Amber Kraft We are thrilled with the interest and popularity of Fat Bear Week! We are glad to be able to share Katmai National Park’s most famous residents with the world and have the opportunity to convey the importance of healthy ecosystems.
Social media played a pivotal role in the rise of #FatBearWeek. Katmai National Park and Preserve is remote, making it difficult for the average American to gain access. The role of social media in the Fat Bear Week campaign was to provide that access for those sitting at home. The use of the explore.org live cams paired with comparison photos of the bears being featured encouraged virtual visitors to participate. Social media extended the invitation to the fat bear party.
CC How did the Fat Bear Week contest start?
AK Fat Bear Week has grown a lot since it was conceived as a single-day event, “Fat Bear Tuesday,” six years ago, and grew into the weeklong event that we have today. This program was created as a way to engage the public in the phenomenon of brown bears in hyperphagia to prepare for winter, and it was a success. Hyperphagia is when a bear’s metabolism changes in the fall. The hormone that lets a bear feel full, leptin, stops working and the bears feel constantly hungry. That means they are either fishing or sleeping – resting from all the hard work of fattening up to survive. It also gives us the opportunity to share the importance of access to clean water and healthy ecosystems unaffected by climate change or human influence, without which the fat bears we celebrated this year would be at risk.
CC Tell us a little something about this year’s champion, 747.
AK Bear 747 was first classified and given his number in 2004. Since that time, he has grown to be maybe the largest and heaviest bear on the Brooks River. Although 747 has been one of the largest bears on the river, this is his first Fat Bear Week championship. This year he really packed on the pounds, looking like he was fat enough to hibernate in July and yet continuing to eat until his belly seemed to drag along the ground by late September.
CC As March Madness has proven, we seem to love these bracket-style contests. Has this format worked out great to allow an interactive experience of fans voting for their favorite fat bear?
AK Absolutely!This year we received 646,282 votes during the Fat Bear Week competition.
CC Bears are pretty fascinating animals as a species, but are there some that have some unique characteristics among your bear population at Katmai?
AK We do notice unique characteristics of individual bears. That’s what allows us to identify individuals based on their physical and behavioral features. Due to the abundant bear and salmon population of this region, bears tolerate each other and people at close proximity. This tolerance of people has allowed us to make these observations of a bear’s unique physical and behavioral features.
CC Do you have a personal favorite bear that you either have rooted for during Fat Bear Week, or just a bear that has endeared himself or herself to you?
AK All of these animals are amazing. This summer I have been fascinated by watching bear 435, “Holly’s Cub.” Cubs start their lives so small and fragile, with many obstacles to face to make it to adulthood. While not the fattest bear, this cub did a great job packing on the pounds, even after an encounter with a porcupine and having a paw full of quills for months.
CC For those of us who haven’t had a chance to see it in person, what’s an experience like visiting Brooks Camp/ Falls to see these bears up close and personal?
AK Brooks Camp is a truly special place. When visitors arrive, their first stop is the visitor center, where they receive a bear safety orientation. It is important for everyone to know how to react when you come across one of the bears that live here – as you almost certainly will – and we want that to be a positive experience for both the visitors and the bears. Brooks Camp attracts people from all over the world to view brown bears, enjoy world-class fishing and learn about the long human history of the area.
It is also a starting point for many backcountry adventures. Brooks Camp is located in the heart of Katmai National Park and Preserve and accessed only by boat or plane, so some advanced planning is necessary to visit. Those wishing to visit should check out our website for trip planning advice at nps.gov/katm.
CC The Katmai Conservancy also is heavily involved in Fat Bear Week and more importantly in preservation for bears and under wildlife. What kind of importance do they play in conjunction with what you’re doing at Katmai NP?
AK The Katmai Conservancy is the official nonprofit fundraising partner of Katmai National Park and Preserve. The conservancy supports Katmai’s unique ecosystems, scenic character and associated natural and cultural resources by promoting greater public interest, appreciation and support through education, interpretation and research. Membership, donations or online purchases directly support Katmai’s research, education and visitor service priorities.
CC Do you hope that the popularity of Fat Bear Week – not to mention interactive experiences like the Brooks Falls bear cam – will help create more interest in bears from the public and that this contest will continue to raise awareness about bears?
AK Yes! Brown bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve, and throughout the Bristol Bay region, use their skill and adaptations in an attempt to sate their profound hunger and meet the challenge of survival.
For these bears fatness means success and Fat Bear Week celebrates their success. There is no “fat-shaming” going on with these animals. Fat bears mean they are healthy bears and ready for the winter. During hibernation bears live off their accumulated fat. This is serious business. For example: If a pregnant female bear does not have enough fat, her cubs will likely not survive. Instead, we are celebrating a feat of nature we are lucky to be able to witness. Brown bears get fat to survive, and the health of Katmai’s ecosystem – particularly salmon – contributes to their survival. ASJ
Editor’s notes: See side-by-side comparisons of skinny bears becoming well-nourished bears at nps.gov/katm/ learn/nature/fat-bear-week-2020- sliders.htm. And check out the Brooks Falls Katmai bear cam at explore .org/livecams/brown-bears/brooks-falls- brown-bears-low. For more on the Katmai Conservancy, go to katmaiconservancy.org.