It’s bulking season in bear country.
“Fat Bear Week is always a celebration of the success of the bears,” Naomi Boak, a media ranger at Katmai, told USA TODAY. “Not just the big boys, but the sows with cubs, the young teenage bears, the subadults.”
Only one, however, can be crowned champion when Fat Bear Week returns next month.
Here’s what fans should know about this year’s competition:
What is Fat Bear Week at Katmai National Park and Preserve?
Fat Bear Week is a March Madness-style bracket competition that pits some of Katmai’s biggest and most beloved bears against each other in the arena of public opinion.
Each day, fans vote for their favorite bear. The bears with the most votes at the end of the day advance to the next round until a champion is named at week’s end.
Why do we celebrate Fat Bear Week?
Fat Bear Week began as Fat Bear Tuesday in 2014 and was expanded into Fat Bear Week in 2015.
It’s a celebration of the bears’ success in bulking up and the unique ecosystem that supports them.
“Without the pristine Brooks River ecosystem to support an abundant salmon run, there would be no Fat Bear champions,” according to Katmai’s press release.
Why are fat bears important?
The bears have to survive off their fat during six months of hibernation, but there are other reasons for piling on the pounds.
Boak explained the biggest, most dominant adult male bears, which are called boars, get their pick of fishing spots and mates. Meanwhile, adult female bears, or sows, need fat to raise cubs or prepare to have them the following year.
“Female bears have delayed implantation, so the eggs that have been fertilized don't implant until the bear is in hibernation and if she is fat enough,” Boak said.
She noted that last year’s Fat Bear Week runner-up, Bear 901, had her first litter this year.
What kind of bears are in Fat Bear Week?
Fat Bear Week’s bears are brown bears.
When is Fat Bear Week 2023?
The main event runs Oct. 4 through Oct. 10, but friendly competition begins next week with Fat Bear Junior.
“That’s cubs only,” Boak said. “They, percentage-wise, gain the most weight. Cubs, when they're born, weigh a pound and by the end of their first year can weigh up to 70 pounds and when they're yearlings, they could be 200 pounds at the end of the season.”
Fans can vote for their favorite cub on fatbearweek.org on Sept. 28 and 29. The winner of Fat Bear Junior will go on to compete in Fat Bear Week.
Fat Bear Week’s contenders will be unveiled on Oct. 2. That’s when you can start filling out your brackets.
Voting for Fat Bear Week begins Oct. 4 and a champ is crowned Oct. 10.
Over 1 million votes were cast in last year’s competition.
What happens after Fat Bear Week?
Fans can still watch explore.org bear cam livestreams through October. Each year, 10 million people tune in to see the bears, starting in June.
“They can follow these soap operas over many years and get to know the bears and their personalities,” Boak said. “I mean there are some people on the bear cams who can identify the bears far better than we rangers can because they have eight cameras they’re watching and we can only be in one place at a time.”
She said the bears begin going into hibernation at the end of October and re-emerge in March or April.
What is the controversy with Fat Bear Week?
“We don’t want any scandals,” Boak said. “Just enjoy it with your friends.”
Who won Fat Bear Week 2022?
Bear 747 won Fat Bear Weeks 2022 and 2020.
You can see all the previous winners in explore.org’s Fat Bear Week Hall of Champions.
Fat Bear Week is a partnership between Katmai National Park and Preserve, explore.org and Katmai Conservancy.
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Is Otis the bear still alive?
Bear 480 Otis won the very first Fat Bear challenge, Fat Bear Tuesday in 2014 and went on to win Fat Bear Weeks 2016, 2017 and 2021.
Rangers weren’t sure he’d be back this year because he’d already lived to his late 20s, past the expected age of most brown bears. But he returned in late July.
“He was terribly, terribly skinny, but he's not skinny anymore,” Boak said with a smile. “I mean, his philosophy is eat more, move less. And he is one of the most successful anglers on the river. He will just sit there, and he will catch fish. And the contrast between the beginning of the season and now is just incredible … He’s amazing.”
What about other fan favorites?
“Pay attention to the usual suspects because their body sizes may be different,” Boak said, sharing these updates.
Bear 151 Walker: “He started out as a very kind of shy, smaller bear, and he has grown really big. So now he’s throwing his weight around, testing to see where he can be in the hierarchy on the Brooks River, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, for him.”
Bear 128 Grazer: “Even though she's a female, (she) is one of the dominant bears on the river, and she's probably the best angler we have. She's huge, just huge.”
Bear 435 Holly: 2019’s Fat Bear Week winner “again is huge.” Boak noted neither 435 Holly nor 128 Grazer had cubs this year, so they’ve been able to easily fatten up without spending extra energy on cubs.
Bear 901: Last year’s runner-up had three cubs this year and lost one. “But she looks terrific. She's not as fat as she was last year, of course, but we have to cheer her on.”
Bears 909 and 910: “They were raising their cubs together last season, which we've never seen before. It's highly unusual.” Equally unusual, Boak said when it was time for Bear 909 to “boot out her cub” this year, the cub wasn’t quite ready and was adopted by her aunt, Bear 910, who raised her along with her own cub.
Teachers can help students learn more about bears with Fat Bear Week in the Classroom.
“I just love it when we hear from kids and from teachers. They get so enthusiastic about the bears,” Boak said. “It's a great way to get connected to nature and understanding about bears in the wild.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fat Bear Week is almost here: When it starts at Katmai National Park