More than 2,000 bears call Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve home, where they spent this past summer bulking up to prepare for a long winter of hibernation. In honor of their hard work each year, Katmai rangers put the 12 chubbiest ursids to a vote during Fat Bear Week. The newest chunky champion is bear 435, Holly—one of the most famous mammals to feast on Brooks River’s salmon run.
With her furry blonde ears and toasted-marshmallow coat, Holly has amassed a cult following. Tales of her devotion as a mother spread wide and far after she successfully reared her injured offspring to adulthood. She then went on to adopt an abandoned cub in 2015—a behavior rarely seen among brown bears.
Now, Holly is back in the public eye, this time for her impressive transformation before Fat Bear Week. The contest, which first launched in 2015 and runs through early October, is like a condensed version of March Madness for the wildlife crowd; it lets the public throw their weight behind their favorite bear, and helps to promote the National Park Service’s conservation efforts. The competitors are all coastal brown bears (a different subspecies from their inland grizzly kin) and include males, females, and sub-adults—the young ‘uns of the ursid world.
To qualify for the bracket, the bears must spend all summer eating fresh-caught salmon under the mountains. This, of course, is a natural part of their life cycle: Come fall, a hormone meant to regulate hunger in their bodies switches off, pushing the animals into a state known as hyperphagia, when they eat up to 60,000 calories a day. Any weight they put on is shed quickly—bears can lose 20 to 40 percent of their body mass during hibernation.
Fat rolls aside, the campaign educates voters by sharing the backstory of each four-legged predator with live bear cams and ranger notes. Repeat qualifiers often end up with monikers, as was the case with this year’s finalists: the famed Holly and her opponent, Bear 775 Lefty. Named after his tiny left ear, the male adult is distinguished by his even brown coat and the prominent scar located near his right hip.
While many hope to see the two champs again in next year’s competition, nothing is guaranteed. Beadnose, the victor of Fat Bear 2018, for example, hasn’t been spotted on the park’s cams all season. Rangers say there could be a few explanations for the heavyweight’s disappearance: At two-plus decades, she could have passed away from old age or succumbed to a wilderness-induced injury. Or, on a cheerier note, she could be fishing for salmon on another reservation, waiting for all the hype from Fat Bear Week to blow over.