Voting for Fat Bear Week opened Wednesday, giving fans another long-awaited opportunity to root for their favorite tiny-eared floofs in this year’s bracket of contestants.
Internet users have built an annual tradition around returning to the live cams to spend a day — or more — with the bears at Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve. As new and familiar faces alike emerge from hibernation every summer to feast up for the coming winter, the ways they find food, raise offspring and survive injuries all tell unique stories of resilience.
Voting continues through Tuesday, and many people have flocked to the digital polls already, organizers said. Turnout looks likely to rival or surpass last year’s total of around 800,000 votes.
Fans love the bears for more than just their ability to double in size: Longtime favorites — like four-time champion 480 Otis — have consistently wooed voters with their charming personalities.
“Our brown bears in Katmai National Park are pretty charismatic,” said Guy Runco, the executive director of the Katmai Conservancy. “People are able to follow them and their lives during the summer on the bear cams, and I think that really allows people to draw a connection between these bears and themselves.”
Although thousands of brown bears reside in the park, the bracket narrows voters’ choices to 12. Rangers try to include a diversity of bears, ensuring a mix of adult males, single females, females with cubs, a juvenile “teenage” bear and a cub. But those who shine on camera, Runco said, are naturally more likely to make the cut.
The bears rely heavily on the salmon run at Brooks River to bulk up on fats for the winter, but as waters warm around the world, salmon populations have been dwindling in North America. Still, the bears at Katmai have been lucky, said the founder of Fat Bear Week, Mike Fitz, the resident naturalist at Explore.org.
The water temperature at Brooks River has been survivable so far, Fitz said, even as salmon runs nearby have collapsed in recent years. Part of that is due to the effects of climate change on oceans, where salmon — a cold-water species — live much of their lives before they head back to freshwater to reproduce.
While he’s thrilled to watch viewers fall in love with the bears at Katmai, Fitz said he also hopes fans remember to appreciate the importance of the surrounding ecosystem that enables them to thrive. Protecting the bears, he said, requires protecting salmon and the overall habitat, as well.
Aside from providing bear enthusiasts with a fun opportunity to indulge in parasocial relationships with the big fluffy mammals, Fat Bear Week is also a celebration of the animals’ strength and adaptability in the face of hardship.
“When we watch them at Brooks River, we can see their individuality. They’re not anonymously living their lives in ways where we wouldn’t know much about them,” Fitz said. “We get to see them return year after year and grow and mature. That’s a remarkable experience, and it’s one of the things that keeps me watching the webcams.”
So, as one Twitter user put it, "happy fat bear week for those who observe this holiday."