While the black bears of Aspen are hunting for berries, garbage and even piles of corn in local neighborhoods, the brown bears of Katmai National Park in King Salmon, Alaska, are stuffing themselves with salmon, as if preparing for the annual Fat Bear Week Contest.
The contest takes place in Alaska, but fans stretch all the way to the Roaring Fork Valley. Daniela Kohl, founder of the Roaring Fork Bear Coalition in Carbondale, has been an avid fan for few years now.
This March-Madness style bracket pits the bears of Katmai National Park against each other as they try to eat a year’s worth of food in six months in preparation for hibernation. The bears of Katmai are some of the largest bears on Earth, according to explore.org. Adult males can weigh 700-900 pounds, and adult females are smaller by on-third to one-half, due to the costs of raising cubs.
Fat Bear Week 2022 begins on Oct. 5 and ends on Fat Bear Tuesday: Oct. 11. Voting takes place over several days at http://www.fatbearweek.org. Voting criteria is completely up to the people. You can vote for the fattest bear, the bear whose “before and after” pictures are the most impressive or your favorite numbers or name.
The Fat Bear Week contestants and bracket were released Monday. The first round pits Bear 335 against Bear 164, and Bear 747 against Bear 856. Bears 747 and 856 have a past rivalry, competing for the best fishing spot in Brooks Falls. In late summer 2022, 747 took over as the river’s most dominant bear.
Four-time champion Bear 480, known as Otis, is looking for his fifth title in 2022. Otis was first identified in 2001 and is one of the oldest bears at Brooks River. As Otis ages, it is becoming harder for him to assert his dominance over the younger male bears. However, his age is not stopping him from feasting on salmon. Instead of chasing salmon, Otis takes his place in the river and waits for the salmon to come to him. This strategy allowed him to eat 42 salmon in one sitting.
“This bear keeps recycling himself and rejuvenating every time he goes into hibernation. Every time he pops out, he congregates with his other fellow bears by the falls in groups of 13, 14 or 15. They call it the office,” said Kohl.
Bear 435, another long-time contestant in Fat Bear Week, is hunting for her second title. Bear 435, known as Holly, is a large adult female bear who was champion in 2019. Holly has reared several litters of cubs and even adopted an orphaned yearling in 2014. Bear 335 is one of her many offspring. Kohl thinks 2022 might be Holly’s year to overtake Otis.
“I think they’re trying to crown her because everyone is rooting for Otis because he’s such a great bear,” she said. “She’s amazing.”
If you want a chance to watch the bears feast before casting your vote, check out the Brooks Falls Bear Cam in Katmai National Park. In addition to the voting, those who are interested can tune into explore.org’s Brooks Live Chat channel, where expore.org’s naturalist Mike Fitz, co-founder of Fat Bear Week, and Katmai National Park rangers will discuss the importance of fat storage to bears during hibernation. A full schedule of events can be found here: https://explore.org/fat-bear-week.
The bears found in Aspen are black bears, but don’t let their name fool you. Black bears can be black, grey, brown or white, depending on their location and the bear. The contestants of Fat Bear Week are brown bears, also known as grizzly bears. There are a few distinctions between the two species. According to the National Park Service, brown bears are typically larger than black bears and have a distinctive shoulder hump. Additionally, a brown bear’s rump is lower than their shoulder hump. Black bears’ shoulders lie level with their back, and their rumps are higher than the front shoulders.
“I think it’s important that people can participate in Fat Bear Week and understand bears. They’re not these ferocious beasts that want to attack people,” Kohl said.