A looming government shutdown threatens to claw its way into a crowd-pleasing Alaska tradition: Fat Bear Week.
Alaska's most-watched popularity contest, Fat Bear Week involves residents picking their favorite fat brown bear who's been stocking up for winter by noshing on salmon in Katmai National Park & Preserve. Viewers of the bears online vote in tournament-style brackets for those they want to advance to the next round until a champion is crowned in the weeklong contest.
More than 1 million votes were cast last year.
Problem is, national park employees count and release those votes — and a shutdown won't allow them to do so because it would trigger a ban on using the park's official social media accounts for as long as the government is closed.
“Should a lapse happen, we will need to postpone Fat Bear Week,” Cynthia Hernandez, a park spokesperson, said in an email to The Associated Press.
If Congress does not reach an agreement to fund the federal government, operations will shut down Sunday. This year’s Fat Bear Week contest is set to begin Wednesday.
The National Park Service estimates that 2,200 brown bears inhabit the park, a number exceeding the people who live on the peninsula. They have six to eight months to eat a year’s worth of food and ensure their survival through winter, according to the service.
The Katmai brown bears are famous for standing at Brooks Falls, catching sockeye salmon in their mouths to fatten up for the winter. And they're a huge draw for the park on the Alaska Peninsula, the arm of land extending from Alaska’s southwest corner toward the Aleutian Islands about 250 miles (402.3 kilometers) southwest of Anchorage.
The spectacle draws so many visitors that three viewing stands have been erected near the falls, along with a bridge and boardwalk over the Brooks River to allow visitors to avoid the bears.
Several cameras operated by explore.org provide the live streams of the bears at Katmai.