Like a rite of fall, the Katmai National Park and Preserve in southern Alaska celebrates its fattest brown bears.
The park holds Fat Bear Week, an online competition that highlights how intensely the bears eat, stuffing themselves with sockeye salmon at the Brooks River to gain weight for winter hibernation.
The event began as Fat Bear Tuesday in 2014 and expanded into a weeklong contest a year later to raise awareness about the wildlife in the park and preserve, the home to about 2,200 brown bears.
“People love bears and they love a good competition,” said Amber Kraft, a spokeswoman for the park, which stretches about 4.1 million acres southwest of Anchorage. “This year, in particular, Fat Bear Week is a nice break from everything else going on,” she added.
Last year’s contest drew more than 200,000 votes, Kraft said. This year’s tournament began on Sept. 30 and runs through Tuesday featuring 12 contestants. May the plumpest bear win.
Park rangers have created a March Madness-like game out of the contest by pitting pairs of bears against one another — for votes — and asking the public to choose their favorite heavyweights. This year, to allow more people to take part, voting moved off Facebook and onto a website hosted by explore.org, a network that includes more than 150 live nature webcams.
The bear with the most votes advances to the next round. The finals take place Tuesday, when one bear will be crowned the big champ. What does the bear win? A moment of social media fame and the likelihood of surviving winter.
To show the bears’ drastic weight gains, the park shows photos of them before and after they began packing on the pounds this summer.
Park staff members assign the bears numbered names, like 480 Otis, so that they can identify and monitor them, and some of the most frequently seen bears get nicknames, too.
This year, 435 Holly will defend her title.
“She is fat. She is fabulous,” the park announced after she won last year. “Long live the Queen of Corpulence!”
Holly, described as a “medium-large adult” on her bio, has won over some fans with her strong maternal instincts. She has reared several litters of cubs, making her “one of the more experienced and tolerant mother bears at Brooks River,” it said. In 2014, she adopted a lone cub into her family and raised the cub alongside her own.