Fall Bears are Porky Pigs

The remaining grizzly bears in the lower 48 don’t have it as easy as Alaskan bears

By Rob Breeding

The photos of No. 435 are impressive.

No. 435 is Holly, as rangers in the Katmai National Park in southwest Alaska have dubbed this porcine bruin. She is the winner of “Fat Bear Week,” besting an impressive field of rivals, including Lefty, Chunk and Otis.

Katmai rangers post before and after shots of the competitors each fall — before and after hyperphagia. Bears go on this pre-hibernation annual eating binge to prepare for winter’s long sleep.

Holly’s before and after shots make clear why she’s the winner. They’re like before and after photos promoting the latest diet craze, only in reverse. In the first photo, on the left in this case, Holly stands in the foaming river, fishing for salmon.

She looks good in the before image. Healthy and fit, with a trace of “bear” belly between her limbs.

The after photo takes chubby to a new level. Holly is enormous, her body so bulbous you wonder how she’d react if circumstances required her to do anything in a hurry. The good news is that for a bear her size, the only real threat is a bigger bear. And the bigger bears have been gorging on salmon too.

I have no doubts about Holly’s ability to get somewhere she needs to be, fast. And I’d love to see that blubbery mass running at full tilt, so long as she was headed in the opposite direction.

The photos of No. 435 are amusing, but are also evidence of conservation. Alaskan brown bears grow to their enormous size because we haven’t screwed up the incredible natural bounty provided by intact salmon runs. It’s bewildering to ponder that those runs once extended down the Pacific Coast as far as Southern California. Sadly, it took us far too long to realize not every coastal river required a dam to complete it.

We wiped out those fish, like we wiped out buffalo and passenger pigeons. And while we haven’t yet become unerring masters of conservation — see greenhouse gas emissions and climate change — we’re generally attentive now in a way we weren’t in the recent past. We’re better, but our conservation journey remains incomplete.

The salmon apocalypse hasn’t yet reached the Katmai and bear No. 435, as her corpulence attests. There’s power in those fish and the calories they deliver, sometimes quite literally to the jaws of brown bears that sometimes snatch leaping fish from the air. When the salmon arrive, the bears camp out, so focused on the river they barely notice other bears (so long as those bears respect the pecking order of the best fishing spots) and human tourists who park themselves in designated spots along the river.

The life of a grizzly bear is certainly unique. With their winter hibernation it’s almost as if they live each year as a day: the waking hours of summer followed by a winter night’s sleep. During the summer/fall hyperphagia pre-bedtime binge, Alaskan bears can eat 100 pounds of energy-dense berries, salmon and nuts — nearly 60,000 calories — per day.

Humans sometimes assume Holly-like proportions while barely exceeding 2,000.

The remaining grizzly bears in the lower 48 don’t have it as easy as Alaskan bears. Only a faint shadow of the Columbia River’s once epic salmon runs still make it to the headwaters in Idaho. Still, grizzlies in the northern Rockies enter their own period of hyperphagia as winter approaches, and they have to work a quite a bit harder to pack on the pounds. The result is hungry, wandering bears. And hungry, wandering bears get into trouble.

Restoring salmon might solve it all. But in lieu of that possibly impossible solution, the least we can do is keep food stored away and not teach hungry bears how to become a problem.

Because that’s usually followed by the bear becoming dead.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.

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