Partner Profile: Bears over the long-term
“It’s going to be a good year for bears,” said research ecologist Dr. Frank van Manen. He would know. Van Manen, with the University of Tennessee, has been part of the longest-running black bear research program in North America, and has followed bear population trends in the Smokies closely.
Visitors may see more bears than usual—and park wildlife managers may be more busy than usual, he explains—because last year’s mast (fruit, seed, and nut) crop was especially good. Researchers and managers measure hard mast such as acorns, and soft mast such as berries and grapes. While oaks didn’t produce a very good crop of acorns last fall, the amount of hickory nuts and especially wild grapes “was pretty incredible.” Late into the fall and early winter, the bear researchers were still finding traces of wild grape in bear scat.
All of this plentiful food means that more cubs survive to adulthood, and more healthy adult bears successfully reproduce. “We had a high [population] level to begin with,” said van Manen. “We’re looking at quite a few yearlings that will be kicked out” by their mothers and have to establish their own home ranges, “which could mean trouble for Bill and Kim in coming years.” Bill Stiver and Kim Delozier, wildlife managers, are responsible for making sure all those young, exploring bears don’t wander into your campsites or picnic areas.
We weren’t always able to make these connections between food supplies and bear populations, let alone predict which years might bring more reports of nuisance bears. When the University of Tennessee study first began in the late 1960s, van Manen’s predecessor and mentor Dr. Mike Pelton was just figuring out what research questions to ask. The National Park Service, in their attempts to better understand and manage bears in the Smokies, asked Pelton if he could set up a bear study. No one knew how many bears lived within the Park boundaries, or anything about the wild bears that stayed away from humans. Additionally, hunters around the region—in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina—were finding fewer bears, a sign of a possible problem for the population overall.