"The reality is, unless we got all the bears to line up ..., we're not going to have the exact same photos," said Andrew LaValle, a National Park ranger who runs the contest. He joked that he would try, "but the bears haven't responded to my phone calls."
An Alaskan brown bear known as 409 Beadnose had her hands full with two new cubs in the summer of 2016. They remained at her side when she emerged from hibernation last year and set about fishing for sockeye salmon in Katmai National Park and Preserve. In other words, Beadnose was sharing the spoils.
Not this year. In the lingo of wildlife biologists, she “emancipated” those cubs, and this spring she emerged from a long winter’s snooze a lithe empty-nester. After a summer stuffing her maw with salmon that were hers and hers alone, Beadnose has the blubber to show for it.
On Tuesday, that remarkable expansion made 409 Beadnose – a name that combines her official, park-assigned number and a moniker inspired by her upturned snout – the winner of Katmai’s fourth annual Fat Bear Week contest. The battle played out on Facebook, where pairs of photos of bear bods, all regulars at the Brooks River buffet, were pitted side-by-side, and the winner of each round was the one that got the most likes.
“Bears must eat one year’s worth of food in six short months to survive hibernation, and 409 has excelled at that,” the park wrote in a Facebook post announcing her victory over a beastly bruin named 747. “Her radiant rolls were deemed by the voting public to be this year’s most fabulous flab.”
It was a second victory for Beadnose, who took home the trophy in 2015, the event’s first year as a weeklong contest. Her many fans rejoiced. “We ladies needed the win! Yeah mama bear!” one Facebook commenter wrote. ” YAAAAASS! BOW BEFORE THE ABSOLUTE UNIT QUEEN!” wrote another.
It wasn’t totally fair, given that the photographs, most taken by park staff, were not all shot from the same angle. Beadnose, for example, was seated in her end-of-summer portrait in a girth-accentuating position that some observers compared to a Hershey’s Kiss, while other bears were shown standing. Some final photos were taken a few weeks after others, giving their subjects more time to gorge.
“The reality is, unless we got all the bears to line up into a single file line on the same day, we’re not going to have the exact same photos,” said Andrew LaValle, a park ranger at Katmai who runs the contest. He joked that he would try, “but the bears haven’t responded to my phone calls.”
They were probably too busy on the small Brooks River, an upstream bottleneck for hundreds of thousands of the 62 million salmon that passed through Alaska’s Bristol Bay this year, LaValle said. There, the bears easily snatch the fish, then promptly massacre them for the fattiest parts – the skin, fat and brain – before nonchalantly discarding the flesh for which we humans might pay upward of $30 a pound.
LaValle compares this surgical approach to not filling up on bread at a restaurant – the fat is the good stuff, and there’s plenty more where it came from.
“They can afford to do that,” he said. “The bears in Yellowstone and Denali [National Parks] would be green with envy.”
About 2,000 brown bears live in Katmai, where they also eat berries, vegetation and other animals, but the Brooks River bears are the stars. They ply their trade next to a viewing platform and on a webcam hosted by explore.org, where their delightful belly flops, dramatic cub rescues and occasional salmon-stealing are streamed live. Forty-nine identifiable adults fished the river last summer, and 18 cubs have been spotted there this year, LaValle said, all sharing a cafeteria that is surprisingly peaceable considering it is full of creatures that are pretty solitary by nature.
“Like humans, they’re willing to tolerate a lot of things for food,” LaValle said.
The regulars have feverish followings online, where fans chronicle their movements and histories. One favorite is 480 Otis, a bruin with a floppy right ear who calmly fishes in a riverside spot followers call his “office.” Thought to be the oldest in the crew at around 20 years old, he’s also a two-time winner of Fat Bear Week. But he lost to Beadnose in his first matchup last week.
Beadnose also trounced 854 Divot, a female whose nickname derived from her habit of digging holes next to the river and who is known for stealing fish from anglers’ lines. Even an inspiring backstory – in 2014, park officials removed a wire wolf snare that was caught around her neck – could not tip the scales in her favor.
Beadnose’s opponent in the finals Tuesday was a bear known only by his number: 747. It was randomly assigned, insisted LaValle, who described the bear on Facebook as a “jelly-bellied jumbo jet.” The accompanying photo showed 747 wading on the last day of August, with just a couple of inches of clearance between his pendulous abdomen and the water.
“He has been compared to a Macy’s Thanksgiving parade balloon,” LaValle said. “He looks like a hippopotamus more than a bear, at times.”
The whole thing is not just an exercise in social media mastery for LaValle, who seems to be a walking thesaurus of synonyms for “fat.” (“Whose salmon-sourced cellulite supersedes?” he asks on Facebook. “Which titan of the tundra is the absolute unit?”)
Nor is it fat-shaming, he said, but rather a salute to bears who are “good at what they do.” That is: Stuffing themselves silly on sashimi all summer to prepare for several months of food-less sleep, during which time they lose one-third of their body mass. Summer is for gaining 200 to 300 pounds, and possibly topping out at around 1,000.
This is a beach body, brown bear style. This is yo-yo dieting for the good of a species.
“Time is of the essence, and they have to pack on the pounds,” LaValle said. “It’s a celebration of successful bears.”