We can’t get much further in talking about Katmai National Park without talking about BEARS. If you know anything about Katmai, you probably know that it’s famous for its massive population of brown bears, also known as grizzly bears. In case you’re wondering, grizzlies and brown bears are, indeed, the same species (Ursus arctos), but grizzlies are considered to be a subspecies (U. a. horribilis) and typically live further inland. Brown bears, on the other hand, tend to live on the coast and subsist on marine-derived food sources, and thus get a little bigger (up to 1,000lbs in the fall).
In fact, for the last half decade or so, Katmai has been celebrating the biggest of the big bears in its annual Fat Bear Week tournament. The competition has grown in popularity each year, as thousands of people from around the world tune in on social media to view spring and fall photos of Katmai bears and vote for whichever ones they think have gotten the fattest for the winter. It is the most wholesome thing, plus a great opportunity to educate people about bears! If you didn’t know about it before, now you do, and now you have to go vote in October when Fat Bear Week returns for 2021. 🙂
Now, when I say Katmai has a lot of bears, I mean, it has a LOT OF BEARS. There are estimated to be over 2,200 brown bears in the park, many of which gather along Brooks River during the annual salmon run to fatten up for the winter. During hibernation, they’ll lose one quarter to one third of their body weight, and must pack that weight back on during the summer in order to survive. Their body temperatures will drop to less than 90 degrees F (normally it’s about 100 degrees F), and they’ll only take about one breath per minute. Their heart rates will drop to about 8-10 beats per minute. Still, they’ll be burning about 4,000 calories per day during hibernation. It’s no wonder they’re so ravenous during the summer months!
One of the things I’m really looking forward to is learning the individual bears around the park. They can be recognized by their shapes and sizes, personalities, colors, and behaviors. While bears are assigned random numbers for monitoring, management, and ID purposes, many of the regulars have also earned nicknames. The park recognizes that this can have an impact on the ways people perceive the bears, and so it’s important to continue to remind visitors that these are still wild animals, regardless of what we call them.
This large concentration of brown bears presents incredible opportunities for scientific study, so for the last 20 years, biologists have been monitoring them at Brooks River. The data collected over these long term studies provide information on bear behavior, population dynamics, and environmental fluctuations and factors among other things. In addition, the park also has Bear Cams on the Brooks River that can be viewed from anywhere in the world during the summer, and have provided opportunities for some citizen science to take place as well.
As you can imagine, welcoming visitors into a park packed with thousand-pound hungry eating machines is a bit of an undertaking, so a lot of my job this summer will involve educating folks about the bears and helping ensure that people stay out of the bears’ way. Bear traffic control, if you will. (More accurately, people traffic control, but I like my puns so deal with it). Bottom line: The better folks understand bear behaviors and needs, the better things will go for all of us!
So, there’s your primer on the bears of Katmai! There is so much more to know, but I won’t overload you just yet. Plus I’ll certainly be learning a ton more in training and throughout the summer. Catch you next time!