KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — As the population of Tennessee continues to grow, black bears in the state are trying to adapt, according to the TWRA.

Recent census data shows Tennessee ranks eighth nationally among the fastest growing states with nearly 200,000 people relocating to the volunteer state since 2019. The numbers in East Tennessee are similar to the rest of the state. In Sevier and Blount Counties, the population has not seen as drastic of a rise but over 14 million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year. The park is home to a large percentage of Tennessee’s 5,500 black bears.

All of this together puts the odds of bear-human interactions high in and around the mountainous areas of East Tennessee, according to the TWRA. In towns bordering the park, the interactions are most evident. Tons of food waste from thousands of homes, rental properties and restaurants scattered across the area draw bears to the area.

Once in town, the TWRA says bears interacting with people triggers a range of “irresponsible human behavior.”

In fact, TWRA wildlife officers respond to 500-1,000 annual calls in regard to black bears in the region. A large part of the nuisance calls is in Sevier County.

“The overwhelming desire to have a close encounter with a black bear is strangely more powerful than common sense,” said Sgt. David Sexton, a wildlife officer who’s spent over two decades in Sevier County. “Many people intentionally feed bears with little regard for the dire consequences to the bears and humans they leave behind.”

These kinds of actions led to regulations being created in 2000 prohibiting anyone from feeding a black bear or leaving food or garbage in a manner that attracts bears within a six-square-mile area of Gatlinburg. The regulations were intended to create a buffer zone with the hope that bears would be deterred from going further into the city.

However, the TWRA says outside of the GSMNP and this buffer zone in Gatlinburg, there are no prohibitions against feeding bears in Tennessee. Despite this, the TWRA is working to make the public aware of the dangers of habituating bears to unnatural foods. Once bears become used to getting food from humans, they can become very dangerous and the frequency of bear-human conflict increases.

This summer at least five bears have died as a result of interactions with humans. TWRA Black Bear Program Coordinator Dan Gibbs says the agency has seen more incidents involving bears getting into dwellings and vehicles in 2022 than any previous year.

“If you leave food or food trash inside your parked vehicle with the windows open or doors unlocked in the eastern grand division, you’re subject to have a bear get inside,” Gibbs said.

In June, a black bear died after getting stuck inside a car parked outside a Sevierville rental cabin. On the 95-degree day, temperatures inside the vehicle likely reached over 140 degrees. The bear is believed to have been trying to get an empty soda can and snack food bag left in the car.

“Bears have noses seven times better than a bloodhound and can smell food inside a vehicle,” Gibbs said. “Lock your doors, roll up your windows, and never leave anything inside that has even the faintest odor of food including empty food containers, candy wrappers, fast food bags, or even air fresheners. When camping or picnicking, you may not have a choice but please lock food in the trunk or cover it with something to keep it out of sight as bears may also recognize the sight of food through the glass and attempt to get in.”

Other tips for avoiding bear interactions and staying Bear Aware include:

  • Never feed or approach bears
  • Secure food, garbage and recycling
  • Remove birdfeeders when bears are active
  • Never leave pet food outdoors
  • Clean and store grills
  • Alert neighbors to bear activity
  • Leave no trash or food scraps
  • Keep dogs leashed
  • Carry bear spray and know how to use it

In addition, those who live within the Smokies are encouraged not to fill bird feeders if they see a bear in the area. In June, a family in South Knoxville had their feeders emptied by a black bear. This incident led the family to stop filling their feeders in an effort to encourage the bear to leave the area.