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Fat Bear Week: The Competition You Never Knew You Needed

Every year, Katami National Park holds a competition where people vote for which of the park’s brown bears is, definitively, the fattest.

Adam Van Spronsen / Shutterstock

Last week, the enormous 747 was crowned 2022’s fattest bear, but not before the Fat Bear Week contest had its own share of the voting drama we’ve come to associate with elections over the past few years. The difference was that voter fraud actually took place this time.

Every year, Katami National Park – lying just east of King Salmon, Alaska – holds a competition where people vote for which of the park’s many brown bears is, definitively, the fattest. The competition, appropriately titled Fat Bear Week, was started by a group of park rangers at Katami National Park in 2014.

It’s set up like a March Madness bracket, where two bears are matched up in every round. Each day, people vote for one bear in each matchup. At the end of the day, the bear with the most votes in their matchup moves on to the next round, until the winner is crowned.

Fat bear week
C. Spencer / Flickr – 747 bathes in the Brooks River and does not want you to know.

You’re probably wondering how the selection process works, what key criteria people consider before they cast their vote. The truth is, there is none. The media organization that helps host the competition, Explore, states that:

“Your Fat Bear Week vote can be based on many factors. You may want to consider the tremendous growth spurts experienced by younger bears…. Perhaps you want to weigh your vote toward bears with extenuating circumstances such as a mother’s cost of raising cubs or the additional challenges that older bears face as they age…. You can also vote for the bear you think is the simply the largest and fattest. In short, Fat Bear Week is a subjective competition.”

So, yes, that means the fattest bear doesn’t always win. But that’s the beauty of the competition. Last year, the bear 480 Otis – a fan-favorite and 4-time Fat Bear Week champion – took home the title even though he was not the biggest bear by weight. He’s just a bear, named Otis, with a very floppy ear. What’s not to like?

Fat bear week
R. Taylor / Flickr – A photo of fan-favorite 480 Otis minding his own business.

The competition has grown in size every year since its 2014 founding (just like the bears). This year, over 1 million voters took part in the week-long competition. While most of those who first hear of Fat Bear Week assume it’s just a glorified bear popularity contest, they couldn’t be more wrong. Every year, Katami National Park and Explore use the Fat Bear Week platform to inform the public about the complex ecosystem in Katami National Park. During the event, Explore hosts seminars on the changing environment at Katami National Park, inviting naturalists and other professionals to come and speak on the importance of Wildlife conservation.

This year, 747 took home the Fat Bear Week crown. 747 is the largest known bear in Katami National Park and sits at the top of the food chain, only occasionally challenged by one or two other bears. The National Parks Service states:

“Unlike many bears, 747’s size alone is enough to intimidate most bears to yield their space. His dominance combined with his fishing skills allow him to build up substantial fat reserves for the winter.”

National Parks Service

A picture of 747 from September 6, 2022, shows a massive, stocky brown bear that could probably toss a Toyota Prius if it wanted to. He looks twice the width of nearly all other brown bears in the competition. His sheer size appears to have been popular with voters and helped secure 747 his first-place medal on October 11th.  

Voting Fraud Caused a Turbulent Path to Victory for 747

But 747’s win didn’t come without attempts to strip him of his rightful crown. The day after the competition was over, Katami National Park told NPR that:

“Its virtual ballot box was stuffed in Sunday’s contest between 747 and the blond-eared Holly. Poll workers seem to have caught the fake votes in timely fashion, lending legitimacy to 747’s victory. They reported seeing a late glut of suspicious votes going Holly’s way.”

Bill Chappell / NPR
Fat bear week
knelson20 / Shutterstock – A pack of bears eyeing the Fat Bear Week last-minute votes with suspicion.

In fact, over 9,000 votes flooded in during the final hours of voting in the championship matchup between 747 and 435 Holly, a number that caused the votes to be flagged as suspicious. After looking into the issue further, poll workers determined that the votes were spam votes. Poll workers also went back and reviewed all other 2022 Fat Bear Week results to ensure they were legitimate, and concluded they were.

In an era where elections have been riddled with accusations of voter fraud and interference, is it any surprise that even the most fun and innocent of competitions can’t escape the same fate? It’s not, which is a poor reflection on American integrity more than anything.

But in the end, none of that mattered, and 747 achieved plus-sized bear glory by winning this year’s Fat Bear Week. Bear Force One was cleared for take-off, and, oh, how he soared.

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