National Parks Journal: 4-Time Fat Bear Week Champion, Otis, Is ‘One of the Oldest Brown Bears on the Planet’

by Jon D. B.
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In this chunk-centric tell-all, Katmai National Park & Preserve‘s Ranger Cheryl Spencer dishes on the remarkable age of 2021’s 4-time-winning Fat Bear Week Champion, Otis, for Outsider’s National Parks Journal.

Right off the bat, I had to ask Ranger Cheryl: “How is Otis doing?” From the rigorous selection process for Fat Bear Week to the must-see tournament 2021 brought, Cheryl Spencer is a wealth of knowledge on her beloved park. Yet few topics spur her passion like Bear 480, Otis.

It’s a also fair question. Otis is believed to be pushing 30 now, which is as elderly as brown bears get. The old boy is old, to put it plainly.

“You know, I got out of Brooks Camp about five days ago,” Ranger Cheryl begins of her base in Katmai National Park. She had to escape the territory’s lackluster wi-fi in time for the festivities. Very important.

When last she saw Otis right before the tournament, “He was lookin’ nice and chunky,” Cheryl grins. “He’s been doing his fall Otis thing, where he sort of starts in the lower Brooks River and then slowly floats to Brooks Falls as he’s fishing. We call him ‘Floaty Otie’ in the fall.” He’s a barge-sized champion, that’s for sure.

Little did we know that Otis would end up taking the 2021 Fat Bear Week crown, marking his 4th victory in the less-than-a-decade existence of FBW. If there’s anything people love more than a round, chubby brown bear – it’s an old round, chubby brown bear.

Beyond bringing boundless charisma to Katmai National Park & Preserve, Fat Bear Week, and Explore.org’s phenomenal Bearcams, Otis is also the OG. Which is, as Millennials will state outright: Original Gangster.

Katmai National Park’s Otis is 4-Time Fat Bear Week Champion

Otis wearing his pre-Fat Bear Week fluff in Katmai’s Brooks River. (Image courtesy of Ranger C. Spencer, Katmai National Park & Preserve)

Back in 2014, when the inaugural FBW was a single-day voting experience, Otis was crowned the first-ever Fat Bear champion. 7 years later, he’s still dominating the game.

In fact, Otis is the undisputed King of Fat Bear Week with his now-4 victories. In 2016, he would reclaim his title over future-winner 435 Holly, creating a two-year winning streak through 2017 in which he overtook another future winner, the aptly-named Bear 747. Katmai National Park clearly has some chunky repeat contenders. But out of them all, Otis remains a clear sentimental favorite. No other bear comes close to this fourth notch on his behemoth belt.

So what keeps this bountiful bruin such a bread-winning boar at his astounding age? Explore.org’s resident naturalist, Mike Fitz, holds the answer.

Otis Is Remarkably Old For a Brown Bear, Resulting in Unique Challenges

Explore.org runs Fat Bear Week in tandem with Katmai National Park, and Fitz has become a leading expert in the Alaskan brown bears featured within. Like many of us, the naturalist holds a special place in his heart for Bear 480, Otis.

“Otis was four to six years old when he was first identified in 2001, and he’s now one of the older bears at Brooks River,” Fitz begins of the champ. This makes Otis anywhere from 24 to 26-years-old. This is a truly long, incredible life for a brown bear. The species is capable of a healthy 20-30 life, but most die relatively young. Otis is a remarkable exception.

“As bears age, they experience a variety of challenges and Otis is no exception. In particular, he is missing two canine teeth and many of his other teeth are greatly worn.”

In short: this old-timer is chock-full of character.

Otis is an underdog, too, as unlikely as that sounds. As brown bears age, more fit and spunky younglings will displace them. In recent years, “Otis is more likely to be displaced by these bears than he is to displace them” as a result, Fitz adds.

‘While Otis occasionally appears to be napping or not paying attention, most of the time he’s focused on the water’

“Still, he recognizes that patience is a successful strategy. Otis rarely makes an effort to chase salmon like younger, more energetic bears,” Fitz continues. “Once access to his preferred fishing spots becomes available, he takes advantage of the opportunity while expending little energy. While Otis occasionally appears to be napping or not paying attention, most of the time he’s focused on the water, and he experiences a relatively high salmon catch rate as a result.”

That high-catch rate allows Otis to go from the bear seen below (thin, pre-salmon gorged) to the behemoth boar seen above.

480 Otis’ pre-salmon weight in Katmai’s Brooks River. (Image courtesy of Ranger N. Boak, Katmai National Park & Preserve)

What’s not to love?

“Otis is obviously one of our most well-known and beloved bears, and he’s definitely a recurring presence for a reason.” Ranger Cheryl adds of the heavyweight. “But to me, I think it’s truly incredible that he’s one of the oldest brown bears on the planet. That’s pretty cool.”

Yet this is exactly why – when Otis took far longer than expected to show up at Katmai National Park’s Brooks River in 2021 – the park (and Otis fans everywhere) became deeply concerned. Slack is due, sure, as the old-timer isn’t nearly as spry as he once was. But that’s the point. To speak frankly, none of us know how much longer Otis has left.

‘Bear 480 is In the House!’: The Triumphant Return of Otis

But on July 27, 2021, return Otis did – and in spectacular fashion. He put his patient fishing methods to work, and would be in Fat Bear Week shape in no-time.

“In Katmai, if someone were to call out “Elvis is in the house,” we’d say “okay” and go on with our work. But if a ranger puts out a radio call that “Bear 480 Otis is in the house,” we drop everything,” Katmai National Park said of Otis after his jubilant return.

As officials noted, Otis had “been missing in action… Last year he arrived at the Brooks River on June 23rd. The latest he has ever arrived is July 17th.”

“We were concerned,” park staff added. “But last night at Brooks Falls, there he was, fishing for salmon. Brown bears lead challenging lives and 26 is quite an achievement, especially for a male bear. So celebrate the return of Bear 480 Otis with us!”

And as the champion marks another Fat Bear Week victory this Fat Bear Wednesday, October 6, 2021, we’re still celebrating the one and only Otis.

Outsider will be back with more from Ranger Cheryl Spencer on Katmai national Park soon for our National Parks Journal.

All Hail Old Boy.

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