A federal government shutdown was averted Saturday night as Congress passed a temporary funding bill that was signed by President Joe Biden.
That bill kept thousands of government functions operational and many more thousands of federal employees from an uncertain future.
It also preserved a tubby tradition that has become a nationwide sensation for many fans of flab: Fat Bear Week. A shutdown would have shuttered a number of nonessential services, including the contest administered in part by the National Park Service.
[Previously: Fat Bear Week falls prey to looming government shutdown]
The 2023 Fat Bear Week bracket was released Monday afternoon, with some meaty masters of the competition joined by a crop of rotund rookies. The competition dates back to 2014, featuring Katmai National Park and Preserve’s bears that feed on salmon at Brooks Falls and surrounding areas.
The bears were announced via a livestream video hosted by explore.org’s resident naturalist Mike Fitz, a former National Park Service ranger. The contenders are selected from 80 to 90 bears usually identified by rangers at the park during the salmon run.
“Fat Bear Week is a celebration of success, adaptability and resilience in our brown bears,” Katmai ranger Felicia Jimenez said on the livestream. “Bears need to get fat to survive winter hibernation. Katmai’s pristine ecosystem is what allows that to happen.”
Fat Bear Week festivities kicked off last week with the Fat Bear Junior competition Thursday and Friday. The winner was 806′s Spring Cub, who will join the full field of adult bruins as well.
806 Jr. will face off with 428 in the opening round, to be voted on Wednesday. The other matchup Wednesday includes Bear 402, who will be opposed by Bear 901.
Thursday’s matchups include fan favorites 128 Grazer and 151 Walker. The other Thursday matchup is 284 Electra and 164 Bucky.
While the bears that gain the most weight over the summer usually have an advantage in voting, that’s not the only metric, according to Katmai ranger Naomi Boak.
“We’re always looking for a good story,” Boak said on the livestream. “Fatness isn’t everything. We want bears who have shown us a new way of getting fat or that they’ve overcome obstacles. We want this bracket to be filled with good stories.”
Many of those stories come from familiar favorites that have returned to the falls year after year and are perennial contenders in the bracket.
Among those are 480 Otis and 435 Holly and defending champion 747, known as The Bearplane and Bear Force One.
Otis is a three-time champion and the winner of the original Fat Bear Tuesday, which was the predecessor to Fat Bear Week. At about 27 years old, Otis is a veteran fisher but seems to be on the decline.
“Otis arrived in late July, skinnier and more frail than I think we’ve ever seen him,” Boak said.
But he quickly fattened up, catching and inhaling up to 20 salmon a day, according to observers.
Holly, one of the most beloved bears at Brooks Falls each season, has had a life filled with sorrow and success.
She raised an injured yearling cub in 2007 and an abandoned yearling cub in 2016. In 2009, one of her cubs was killed in the park. She was also the 2019 Fat Bear Week champ. She returned to Brooks Falls without cubs this year.
“My heart is with the multitasking moms whether they have cubs or not,” Boak said. “I root for them.”
Bear 747 was estimated to weigh around 1,400 pounds in previous years and is so big that he often takes over the prime fishing spots with no challengers.
Perhaps the most imposing bear on the river this year is 32 Chunk, described by Boak on the livestream as “a light-bulb-shaped leviathan of a bear.”
While the contest is mostly about fun, there’s a strong educational component as well. Fat Bear Week in the Classroom videos will released later in the week. And the entire exercise gives rangers and advocates like Fitz an opportunity to spread the word about the wonders of the natural world and the importance of maintaining its health.
“We have to give a shoutout to the true sponsors of Fat Bear Week,” Fitz said. “None of this would be possible without salmon. They are the heartbeat of Katmai’s ecosystem.”
Voting starts Wednesday at fatbearweek.org and runs through Oct. 10.