Alaska Life

A Fat Bear Week champion is crowned as Katmai’s bears bask in global spotlight

Bear 747, a competitor in the 2022 Fat Bear Week bracket

Bear 747 took off past the competition to reclaim the title of Fat Bear Week champion Tuesday.

The announcement of this year’s winner caps off yet another Fat Bear Week, one in which more votes than ever funneled in. In the chonk v. chonk elimination-style bracket, voters support their favorite corpulent contestant daily.

The 12 bears that entered the competition all hang out in Katmai National Park and Preserve, which is home to roughly 2,200 brown bears. The competitors can be seen all summer long on a live video, at explore.org/bears, fattening themselves up on fresh salmon before their descent into winter hibernation. This year, Fat Bear Week seemed to reach meteoric global fame. A voting scandal even rocked the competition.

In the finals, Bear 901, a young and independent bear, faced off against 747, a massive and assertive fellow who won the contest in 2020.

Ultimately, 747 came out on top. The bear, likely in his mid-20s, is known for his prowess as a fisherman and his mega fat reserves. By fall, 747′s belly hangs low as he prepares for winter. The chunk has become one of the globe’s largest brown bears according to the National Park Service. He is simply as fat as they come.

747′s opponent, the occasionally mischievous Bear 901, is a young adult bear who spent 2022 refining her fishing and social skills and is known for her independent and mature nature. While indeed not the fattest bear, 901 is an underdog of sorts. Her surprise victory against longtime favorite 480 Otis in an earlier round may have signaled her ability to sweep even the fiercest — and fattest — of competitors. But it wasn’t enough to beat 747, who received 68,105 votes to bear 901′s 56,876 votes.

Fat Bear Week first catapulted into the animal-lovers galaxy back in 2014. But this year’s competition seemed to swell in name recognition as media outlets worldwide scrambled to tell readers about the bears and their behemoth backstories.

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Rolling Stone, The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, The Guardian and the BBC all pushed out Fat Bear Week content at one point or another.

The 2022 competition was not without opprobrium, which made for zippy headlines and social media furor — including, most notably, a late-competition voting scandal. Park service officials discovered the stuffing of virtual ballot boxes in favor of tubby Holly.

Fat Bear Week is a joint project between Katmai National Park, the nature camera streaming organization explore, and the nonprofit Katmai Conservancy.

“Every year, it just builds and builds,” said Guy Runco, executive director the conservancy, which supports and raises money for the national park. The organization gets quite a few donations this time of year.

“The more we talk about it, the more the gospel of the fat bear gets around,” Runco said.

Bear 901

It all starts with the cameras stationed at the park. They broadcast a steady stream of brown bears clamoring through the rushing water of Brooks Falls in search of salmon for the entire summer, ultimately culminating in Fat Bear Week, Runco said.

[Brown bears aren’t as carnivorous as previously thought, study finds]

The remote park, located on the eastern end of the Alaska Peninsula, is home to 5,700 square miles of wilderness and only accessible by boat or plane.

“The bulk of folks that are watching these bear cams, whether it be across the United States or worldwide, are probably never going to make it there,” Runco said.

This year’s Fat Bear Week was different, said Candice Rusch, director of new media at explore, a philanthropic initiative of the Annenberg Foundation that’s responsible for the bear cameras and has live cameras showing wildlife all over the planet.

The park service opted to move the voting interface from their Facebook page to explore.org in 2020, the first year when coverage of the competition jumped, Rusch said. Since then, the response has continued to grow.

Media coverage started earlier this year compared to years past. Mike Fitz, founder of Fat Bear Week, at one point did seven or eight interviews in one afternoon, Rusch said. By Tuesday afternoon, the competition hit 1 million votes — its highest tally ever.

Rusch said she thinks the competition’s popularity is due in part to the park itself, and the bears, which are a litmus test for the health of the area. If the bears are fat, everything is working as it’s supposed to, Rusch said. The salmon showed up and the bears ate.

“People really resonate with an ecosystem that’s still working,” Rusch said. “We see a lot of fatalism around climate change, and Katmai National Park, instead of being a symbol of something that we’ve destroyed, is a symbol of something that we can protect.”

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Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

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