ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Sept. 28 (Reuters) – In Alaska, leaves are falling, daylight is fading, and salmon-eating brown bears race against time to pile on the pounds they need to survive their winter hibernation.
Unbeknownst to the huge drizzle, some of them also participate in Katmai National Park and Preserve Fat Bear Week, the annual celebration of the gluttony and abundance of nature in Alaska.
For seven days starting Wednesday, wildlife fans will submit online votes in a playoff-style competition among 12 of the park’s largest brown bears photographed in the salmon-rich Brooks River. The winner will be announced on October 5.
The Week-Long Online Extravaganza is a joint project of the park and two nonprofit partners: the Katmai Conservancy and explore.org, a multimedia organization that operates live nature cameras around the world, including its Katmai “bear camera”.
Fat Bear Week grew out of a one-day promotion in 2014, which expanded to a full week the following year. It becomes more and more popular every year, with online voting reaching nearly 650,000 votes cast in 2020 compared to 55,000 votes cast in 2018, said Naomi Boak, a Katmai media ranger.
The popularity is easy to understand, Boak said. Big bears bring joy to people, she said.
âThey can do something and be healthy that we can’t do, and that’s being fat,â she said.
There are Fat Bear T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other merchandise. There is a school program at Fat Bear, with students logging in to learn more about biology, ecology, and wildlife.
Katmai bears are among the largest in the world, thanks to the abundant returns of salmon that swim through the river system from Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska.
Katmai’s bears, which number about 2,200, can grow to well over 1,000 pounds (453 kg) because of the summer feasting. They can also lose a third of their body weight during hibernation.
The record return of Bristol Bay salmon this year, which followed other years of great runs in recent years, has been a godsend for Katmai’s younger bears. âThey benefited from being born in the time of plenty,â Boak said.
But even older bears look very big, she said, citing a 14-year-old boy named Walker as an example. âHe hasn’t grown up, but he’s definitely grown up,â she said.
The link between Bristol Bay and the fish-fed bears of Katmai is not lost on opponents of a proposal to build a huge copper and gold mine downstream from the park. The planned project, known as the Pebble Mine, would threaten the survival of the salmon that support the park’s drizzle, they say.
Fat Bear Week shines a light on some of the resources at play, said Jim Adams, Alaska regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
âIt may be a reminder that bears depend on a healthy ecosystem and the world’s largest run of salmon,â Adams said.
The Biden administration said earlier this month that it intends to resurrect an Obama-era policy that could prevent the development of a Pebble-type mine in the Bristol Bay watershed.
Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage, Alaska; Editing by Sandra Maler
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