National Parks Journal: Ranger Cheryl Spencer Reveals Rigorous Process of Choosing Katmai’s Fat Bear Week Contenders

by Jon D. B.
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As Ranger Cheryl Spencer will tell you, there’s a whole lot of fat bears to choose from in Katmai National Park & Preserve. So how, then, does her team go about selecting their fluffiest Fat Bear Week contenders? Is it by gargantuan girth alone?

The answer to that question is a lot more complex than expected. With over 90 brown bears fishing the Brooks River specifically in summer of 2021, Ranger Cheryl tells Outsider for our National Parks Journal that Katmai officials look at considerably more than “just who is the fattest bear of them all.”

Most importantly, Cheryl says, “It’s all about a good representation of different types of brown bears. We really like to make sure there’s bears from every age group and gender on the bracket.”

This, she reveals, comes in service to Fat Bear Week’s most important aspect: education.

“Fat Bear week is really fun. People love bears! But we also want to teach the public as much as we can about their lives in the Brooks River by including, I guess you could say, this wide bear demographic,” Cheryl laughs.

As an interpretive ranger with Katmai’s Brooks Camp for the last two years, Ranger Cheryl is as passionate about wildlife education and conservation as they come. Especially where bears are concerned. We got along famously.

“Another really important aspect is the stories of these bears. We really try to select bears with great life tales that will help us educate the public on the species and their lives at the Brooks River. That’s a huge component of it, as well,” she reveals.

Showmanship, Entertainment, and Education

There are, however, bears that the Katmai’s rangers consider “shoe-ins” for Fat Bear Week; Cheryl included. This includes Bear 747 who, as she says, “is obviously going to be on the bracket because he’s just tremendous. Sincerely, he is really, really big every year without fail.”

Fat Bear Week fans will know the aptly-named 747 as 2020’s reigning champion: The Earl of Avoirdupois.

Through the Alaskan park’s observation programs and Live Bearcams, 747 makes for excellent entertainment. Which, as we Americans know, is the best way to educate the public.

This also segues into another important aspect of selecting each year’s contenders: showmanship. The bears have to actually show up at Brooks River for photographing and “be somewhat in the public eye,” Cheryl says, in order to make a good Fat Bear Week candidate.

“It depends on who has spent the most time fishing at Brooks Falls also, because we have a lot of super fat bears that simply don’t show up at all,” she cites. “And the ones that we can’t get photos of – or that the public will never see – won’t end up on the bracket as a result. They’ve got to show up!”

Katmai National Park’s Fat Bear Week: The Science of Picking a Favorite

There is some science behind the decision-making process, too, as measurable variables come into play.

“We do also base it on who has actually gained the most weight for the season,” Ranger Cheryl reveals. We can’t have FBW without truly fat bears, now can we?

Of this, Cheryl says that “a lot of decision making and debate happens around the estimated weight of these bears.” Which, as we can see, features tremendous gains from the salmon season:

And through all the science, fun, and education Fat Bear Week brings, the Rangers of Katmai National Park & Preserve surely have a favorite for the 2021 bracket, right?

“You could probably ask that to every single ranger and get a different answer,” Cheryl laughs. “As a fan of Fat Bear Week I’m sure you know this, but sometimes it’s not necessarily ‘who’s the fattest bear,’ you know? Everyone has different opinions on how they’ll go about voting. Some people, including us rangers, just have their absolute favorite bear that they want to see win.”

For others, however, there’s only one order of business: “Which bear is actually the fattest?” Cheryl lauds. “There is definitely not a consensus amongst the rangers,” she grins.

For all the latest on Katmai National Park’s Fat Bear Week, including how to vote, Outsider has you covered. We’ll be back with more from Ranger Cheryl Spencer for our National Parks Journal soon.

Outsider.com