Large salmon runs key in this year's race for fattest bear

Oct 2, 2020

It’s a huge election year … for bears. Katmai National Park’s Fat Bear Week is underway, and the competition is bigger than ever. That’s in part to large sockeye salmon runs in Bristol Bay. 

The bears enjoyed a peaceful feast at Brooks Falls.Brooks River had its largest salmon run ever at 800,000 fish.
Credit Katmai National Park and Reserve

“This is probably the fattest fat bear week ever," said Naomi Boak, a media ranger for Katmai National Park. “We had the largest salmon run ever, we had 800,000 salmon come through the Brooks River. We had three or four previous years where we had great salmon runs, so those bears are really fat.”

The 2020 salmon run bay-wide was its fifth largest on record at 58.2 million fish.

Typically bears will vie for prime fishing spots to bulk up for the winter. But this year’s surplus of salmon led to less competition along Brook River Falls. Media Ranger Brooklyn White said the peaceful harvest also saw bear cubs playing with other family groups.

“Which was really odd," White said. "It’s not something that many people have seen or experienced before because of such a successful salmon run that allowed for a more relaxed season for the bears this year.”

Progress pics of 435 Holly's cub in her rookie season.
Credit Katmai National Park and Reserve

One of those playful cubs belongs to returning champ and “Queen of Corpulence,” Bear 435 Holly. Her spring cub is also competing for the top spot. Cubs born in the winter weigh around one pound, but can grow up to 60 times that in their first year.

Boak says the rangers can’t play favorites, but she says 435’s cub could be a sleeper favorite.

“She is part of the royal family. She was very popular on the Explore.org bear-cam this year, so I’d watch her.”

Another bear packing pounds for the top spot is 480 Otis, a former champion and one of the park's most renowned animals. Bear 747 also returns; he was 2019’s runner up and was assumed to weigh almost 1,400 pounds.

That estimation was calculated using terrestrial laser scanning technology, which is normally used in civil engineering projects to scan buildings for volumes. White says the National Park System started experimenting with the scanners last year. 

“With that info, we’re able to collect data that previously would only be accessible by invasive maneuvers by people. We’re able to collect data in a hands-free way that allows the bears to be as wild as they can be.”

This is the second year the park is using scanners. So far 12 bears have been scanned successfully. Instead of guessing weights this year, researchers will focus on volume -- that is, how much space the bears occupy.

This year’s contest is also the most popular to date. Viewership of Katmai Conservancy and Explore dot org’s bear cam has doubled since last year. Mike Fitz is a naturalist for Explore.org and was a ranger at the park for 11 years. Fitz hosts online presentations interpreting bear behavior captured by the cam.

A 3-D projection of 480 Otis made using terrestrial laser scanners last year.
Credit Katmai National Park and Reserve

“People are looking for nature- based experiences even though they weren’t physically at Brooks River and also, the bears are charismatic animals," he said. "They’re mindful animals, they’re individuals and we get to see that on the webcams. We get to see the differences of a very dominant bear like 747 for instance. And one of the past champions 435 Holly who is very tolerant of other bears.”

Fitz says that Fat Bear Week is also a celebration of the environment. He was unable to travel to Katmai this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he’s thrilled to see so many healthy bears.

“Bristol Bay offers that opportunity for people to see what salmon runs truly can be like," Fitz said. "Some of us don’t have that opportunity to experience an ecosystem that’s functioning at its fully realized potential. That’s one thing when I moved to Bristol Bay; King Salmon; Katmai that truly opened up my eyes I had not expected that.”

You can check out Fat Bear brackets on Katmai National Park’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. People can vote for their favorite bears at fatbearweek.org through October 6. To the victor goes the salmon.

An updated bracket from Oct. 2, 2020.
Credit Katmai National Park and Reserve

Contact the author at tyler@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.