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An empty-nest mama bear just won Fat Bear Week

<strong>July 8:</strong> 128 Grazer is photographed before putting on hundreds of pounds of weight.
Naomi Boak/NPS
July 8: 128 Grazer is photographed before putting on hundreds of pounds of weight.

She didn't need to win to prove anything. She just needed to eat hundreds of pounds of salmon so she could survive hibernation. But the bear known as 128 Grazer chomped and she romped, and now she is a Fat Bear Week champion.

"She has been putting in the work," ranger Felicia Jimenez said as the 2023 bracket was unveiled. "She was quite dainty in early summer, but now she is huge."

A dominant bear, 128 Grazer brooked no nonsense at Brooks River in Katmai National Park and Preserve this summer: "For example, a large adult male, 151 Walker, regularly avoided her approach," the park noted.

Grazer took care of business at the ballot box as well, trouncing rival bears at every stage of the tournament. She dispatched past champions 747 and Holly to reach the final and a faceoff with 32 Chunk, an enigmatic and immense bear. Grazer earned 108,321 votes to Chunk's 23,134 to win her first championship.

Grazer, identified by her trademark big blonde ears, was a fan favorite coming into the competition, both for the staggering transformation she pulled off this summer and for her personal journey.

Grazer is a skilled and versatile angler, known to keep pulling in fish into the night. She has successfully raised two sets of cubs, and this year — finally — she's an empty nester.

"She hasn't had to worry about providing for anybody but herself, so she has really made some massive gains," Jimenez said.

Like an ursine Sarah Connor, Grazer is one tough mother, known to preemptively attack huge males that might threaten her offspring. She's also an expert at preparing for the future, thanks to her ability to catch and eat mass quantities of salmon.

Even without cubs, the park said "many other bears remembered her reputation and Grazer maintained a high level of dominance even though she was single."

This year's tournament benefited from a new surge of interest, with nearly 1.4 million votes cast. Two years ago, some 800,000 votes were cast in Fat Bear Week.

The annual competition is a celebration of the bears, which must pack on hundreds of pounds in order to survive their lengthy hibernation, as well as highlighting their thriving environment. In recent years, the area has seen record-setting salmon runs, with more than 60 million sockeye salmon, according to the Department of the Interior.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.