NPS Profile: Keeping our bears wild

Historic entrance sign to Smokies.

As seen in this photo, 5-14 people on average were bitten, scratched, or otherwise harmed by bears annually in the Smokies.

NPS historic photo.

In the early days of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, rangers gauged bear management success by the number of visitors injured each year. People bitten by bears weren’t the only ones suffering from this contact: bears learned to connect humans to food, and approached people in campgrounds and picnic areas. In some years, dozens of “nuisance” bears that had invaded human space were moved or even killed.

Gradually, as attitudes throughout the park service changed, it became clear that management needed to shift from being reactive (managing bears after a problem) to proactive (managing bears and people prior to problems). While it was easy to blame nuisance bears on visitors feeding them (and many in the Smokies still did, often through chain link fences installed on backcountry shelters), the issue was bigger than that.

Other factors in bear problems included unclear rules about (or consequences for) feeding bears, trash piled next to overfilled trash cans, food scraps left in fire rings, and visitors who left picnic goodies unattended on tables. This wasn’t acceptable to managers; as biologist Kim Delozier said, “If we have to move or kill a bear, we’ve failed” somewhere along the line in not preparing for possible problems. Wildlife management in the Smokies was about to change.

Go to page 2: a bear management success story at Chimneys Picnic Area.

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