Voter turnout in local Kenai Peninsula elections was really low this fall.
But there’s one competition in Alaska that saw its highest voter turnout ever this year. That’s probably because its contestants are thousand-pound brown bears.
Mike Fitz is the resident naturalist with Explore.org, one of the organizations that puts on Fat Bear Week. He said almost 800,000 people voted this year as their favorite bears at Katmai National Park packed on the pounds for winter — over 100,000 more voters than last year.
“That means that more people are, at least for a day or a moment, considering the stories of some of the bears that use Brooks River," Fitz said. "And hopefully they’re also taking another moment to think about why bears get fat to survive, how they do it, and thinking about the ecosystem that supports them.”
This year’s Fat Bear Week champion was 480 Otis.
Otis has won the competition before. But his is still a bit of an underdog story.
Otis is older than a lot of his river-mates and he’s missing two canines. This year, he came out to Brooks River late.
“But he stuck to his plan," Fitz said. "His plan is to go to the waterfall and wait for his opportunities to fish in his preferred fishing spots, really try to avoid confrontation with the more dominant bears. And once those opportunities open, he goes to those spots, he sits, he waits for those fish to come to him. So he’s really a master of energy economics.”
Otis captured the hearts of viewers, who hail from all over the world.
Katmai National Park, on the Alaska Peninsula, is no quick trip for most. But the bear cams at Brooks Falls bring viewers right to the scene of the feast.
Fitz said beyond the bears, the week also broadens viewers’ awareness of the ecology of the region. He said he knows of some who have weighed in on the Pebble Mine Project. And he said the success of bears like Otis is a testament to the great salmon returns in the Bristol Bay watershed.
“And the bears are, I think, maybe the most conspicuous benefactors of that," Fitz said.
It’s a message Fitz hopes viewers take away long after Fat Bear Week has crowned its king.
You can still watch Otis and the other Katmai bears on a live webcam at Explore.org.