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In Alaska's Fat Bear Week election, there's no party like a salmon party

Fat Bear candidate 128 Grazer is approximately 17-19 years old. She has a light coat in the spring that darkens in the fall, but she keeps her distinctive fluffy blonde ears.

In many ways, it's a model election. The campaign runs for only one week, and all the candidates are well-grounded and devoid of hypocrisy.

In fact, all the candidates are enthusiastically out for themselves — because they are bears, after all, embracing the ursine urge to eat like there's no tomorrow and fortify themselves for winter hibernation.

Fat Bear Week officially starts on Wednesday, celebrating the hard work bears do to survive, and giving all the rest of us a reason to gawk at massive animals and spawning salmon in their home in Katmai National Park in Alaska.

How Fat Bear Week works

The 12 brown bears are placed into a bracket, where voters decide who should advance from each matchup. Voting opens each day at 12 p.m. ET, running from Oct. 5 through Oct. 11.

The contest highlights the amazing transformation bears must make after they emerge from hibernation, emaciated and hungry. From the middle of summer to the fall, an average male adult can go from weighing 600-900 pounds to well over 1,000 pounds, according to the Katmai website.

Contestants are tracked by their numbers, but veteran animals are known by names like the large male Chunk, or the blond-eared female Holly. Then there's 747 — who doesn't need a nickname because his number and size both echo the famous jumbo jet.

This year's defending champ, Otis, also won the first Fat Bear contest eight years ago.

Fans often follow their favorite bears on webcams in the park, watching as they try to extract sockeye salmon from rapids and waterfalls along the Brooks River.

It helps to be a big bear with a big personality

While the competition favors girth, bears often become sentimental favorites, thanks to personal stories experts have gleaned from years of observation.

Take Holly, aka 435, who has guided several cubs on difficult paths to becoming successful adults — including 503, whom she adopted after he was left alone as a yearling cub.

"A bachelorette's life this summer afforded her the opportunity to concentrate on her own needs," according to the Fat Bear Week site at Explore.org.

Female adult brown bears usually weigh about a third less than males.

If you need bear analysis, park staff and naturalist Mike Fitz of Explore.org recently discussed the 2022 field in a video.

Who you got in 2022?

While incumbents often enjoy an advantage, insurgent newcomers add spice to this year's mix.

One of the youngest bears in the bracket is a female subadult dubbed 335, who is Holly's daughter.

"Subadults are essentially the teenagers of the bear world," from around 2 and a half to 5 years old, Katmai Park Ranger Lian Law said, describing how they're blocked from the best fishing spots and learn to live away from their mothers for the first time.

As that narrative suggests, the bears' backstories are a great way for the park to educate the public about the wide range of bear behaviors, from their fishing and survival strategies to how they interact with other animals.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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