GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — The Great Smoky Mountains National Park reopened to visitors May 9, and ever since, park rangers have been busy dealing with bears coming too close to humans.
WATE 6 On Your Side Reporter Kirstie Crawford spoke with park officials and a woman who saw rangers getting ready to transport a bear that they had just captured Thursday night.
Bill Stiver, supervisory wildlife biologist for GSMNP, said they received multiple reports in the past few days about a couple of bears on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail that appeared to be “highly food-conditioned.”
Stiver said a food-conditioned bear has had human food before, and was no longer afraid of getting close to vehicles or humans in the search for food.
The bear was captured and relocated near the Cherokee National Forrest.
Stiver said June is the park’s busiest month of bear-human interactions.
“The berries are not ripe yet and bears have been out of hibernation for a few months and they’re hungry,” Stiver said.
He said that bears have very strong smelling capabilities, which means they can smell food left in vehicles or at campsites.
Stiver said if the bears are still afraid of humans, they might only go to campsites at night scavenging for food. Once they know good food is right around the corner and easy to obtain, they will continue to go back for more.
“Pretty soon they’ll become bolder and bolder because you’ve rewarded them for coming into our space. And that behavior changes over time to a bear that’s afraid of us and lurking around the perimeter at night, all the way to a bear that’s bold and willing to walk into our space during the day,” Stiver said.
Since the park reopened, Stiver said they have had 11 reported human-bear conflicts, and captured and removed (not necessarily out of GSMNP) five of them.
GSMNP has more than 12 million visitors a year, and is home to about 1,500 bears, Stiver said.
He said it’s important visitors don’t feed the bears, leave any food out or leave doors unlocked so they can remain wild and fearful of humans.
Stiver said tossing biodegradable food on the ground is the same as feeding a bear directly; adding that the phrase “a fed bear is a dead bear” is a little outdated, but the concept still rings true.
He said the action rangers take depend on the bear’s behavior.
“Let’s say if it’s a bear that’s coming around a campground, or a picnic area at night, they still have some fear of people. Often we can just capture those animals, tranquilize them, ear tag them and let them go in the same location. That’s a very negative experience for the animal, and often they move on and don’t cause us anymore issues,” Stiver said.
Although the park uses euthenasia as a last resort for a food-conditioned bear, that’s not the only fatal consequence if a bear becomes accustomed to eating human food.
“Relocating a bear to another area and it gets hit by a car, or killed by a hunter or causes deprivation and gets killed by a landowner, or whatever it may be. The end result is the death of a bear as well,” Stiver said.
He said that bears have incredible homing extincts, so in order to remove a bear with a smaller chance of it returning, they must relocate it at least 40 miles away from the bear’s original territory.
If a visitor sees someone feeding the bears, a bear getting too close to humans or rummaging through trash in the park, call (865) 436-1230 or report it at the Visitor Center.
(Photos courtesy of Paulette Cloutier)
Paulette Cloutier, a wildlife photographer, said she wasn’t surprised when she got to Roaring Fork Motor Trail on Thursday night and saw rangers loading up a bear they had just captured.
“I’m pretty used to it in that area because there’s a big problem with the bears coming to the parking lots in the evening to clean up the hikers’ garbage that was left behind,” Cloutier said.
She said that whenever she sees a visitor feeding the bears or not properly discarding trash, she will say something.
“I just try to explain to them why we don’t feed the bears, why it’s important that we let them be natural. They have to find their own food. Giving them a food source is not good and it causes the problems we have in the park with the aggression of the bears,” Cloutier said.
Cloutier even started her own organizations to hep spread the importance of not feeding the bears.
The Smoky Mountain BEAR Club and Be Bear Aware in the Smokies are educational programs for children, teaching them about Black bears and the nature of the Great Smoky Mountains.
She said that because it’s hard to reach tourists, she felt it was important to start teaching about bear awareness to children.
Cloutier said that as a wildlife photographer, she knows how tempting it could be to get close to a bear and feed it; but she also knows if that happens, those bears won’t be around anymore.
“There’s enough bears in this park that you can safely observe them and photograph them. You don’t need to be feeding them, baiting them, crowding them in the woods, going after them. You’re in their home and we have to respect that.”
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