Managing bears


Long ago in the Smokies, visitors came way too close to black bears, which often harmed both people and bears.

NPS photo.

A main attraction for visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the chance to see one of our approximately 1,500 black bears (Ursus americanus), and a main responsibility of wildlife managers is to monitor those black bears over time. Each year, NPS wildlife managers and researchers from the University of Tennessee have monitored the bears using several different techniques: bait-stations, hair traps (barbed wire that catches strands of bear hair as the animals rub against it), and mark-and-recapture (when bears are caught, weighed, marked, released, and then often caught again to go through the same process in subsequent years). The University of Tennessee is not, at this point, conducting hair traps or mark/recapture work, because of low funding.

Biologists’ goals are to determine changes in density (number of bears per square mile) and distribution (where bears live in the Park), as well as the composition of the bear population: how many adult, young, female, and male bears there are compared to previous years. They also monitor the food sources for bears, so they can learn how changes in fall food supply affect black bear populations over time. They monitor the food by estimating how much "mast" there is. "Hard mast" includes available tree nuts such as acorns and "soft mast" includes grapes, berries, and other fruits. All of these study methods help biologists assess current bear health, and to know whether management programs are keeping the bear population stable.


Researchers at Virginia Tech monitor an orphaned cub's growth.

NPS photo.

Park partners are also invaluable in helping wildlife managers understand bear populations and keep individual bears healthy. The University of Tennessee's long-term bear research, headed originally by Dr. Pelton and now by Dr. van Manen, has provided key population information since 1968. The Appalachian Bear Rescue takes in very young, sick, orphaned, or injured black bears and rehabilitates them for release into the wild-many bears that would not have survived are now living happily again in the Smokies thanks to their efforts.

Return to Meet the Managers: Wildlife where you can find the NPS profile: Keeping our bears wild, and the Partner profile: Bears over the long-term.

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