White and red oaks produce acorns, an important part of a bear's diet.
Hungry or happy bears in the year to come?
Since 1979, wildlife managers and volunteers have conducted mast surveys in the park. The surveys assess how much mast—the crop of nuts and berries—trees and plants have produced, and can help managers predict the distribution, reproduction, and survival of wildlife populations in the year to come. On the ground, this means whether bears will survive through the winter, how many cubs they will have, and where non-native hogs may move over the winter.
This year’s survey of 540 red and white oak trees took place in August. The nuts that oaks, hickories, and beech produce add up to a hard mast (because nuts have hard shells to crack). Soft mast—berries, cherries, grapes, blackberries, and huckleberries, fruits which bears, in particular, love to munch—amounts are not part of the official survey, but managers noticed while they were hiking that high elevation supplies were very abundant. Overall, the hard mast crop was poor, although red oaks at high elevations had a very good acorn crop. Surveyors could spot acorns in only 26% of white oaks surveyed, while they saw acorns in 67% of the red oaks. This is about the same amount of acorns surveyed in 2008.
What may result from this uneven mast distribution—acorns and berries concentrated at high elevations—are distribution and population changes. Non-native hogs will probably wallow in remote areas at high elevations, which isn’t good news for the managers who have to scramble through rough terrain and icy trails this winter to locate and eliminate them. But it is good news for bears, which will probably have a good survival and reproduction rate this year as they follow the food up high.
While many so-called nuisance bears are just taking advantage of handouts from humans in the form of improperly stored food and garbage, they are a problem because they associate people with food and could become dangerous. So far in 2009 wildlife managers captured 21 individual bears (9 males, 8 females, and 4 unknowns). Two bears were caught twice. Usually, managers “work up” the bears (see Dispatches Issue 3 for details) and release them at or near the site of capture. Seven of the bears were released on site, and 16 bears were moved to other parts of the park, far from the picnic areas, campgrounds, and parking lots they had come to know as their own personal cafés.
Spray, don’t shoot
Bear pepper spray, also known as pepper spray, bear deterrent, or bear spray, has been forbidden in Great Smoky Mountains National Park until now. While it used to be classified as a weapon, it is now considered a pesticide or repellant, and as long as it is used according to the directions (to defend against a charging bear, say), visitors can bring it into the park.
To be legal, the bear pepper spray has to be commercially manufactured (no attempts to mix your own with hot sauce allowed—a bear would probably find that appealing), registered with the EPA and the state within which you’re carrying it, and contain 1-2 percent capsaicin and capsaicinoids, the active ingredients. It should not be applied to people, tents, packs, other equipment or the surrounding area as a repellent.
It has been a very busy year for wildlife managers stalking hogs in the backcountry. Due to people releasing hogs into the park—in the past and today—as well as hogs’ higher reproduction rates, the park has a high population of these non-native animals. The hogs carry diseases that are potentially fatal to foxes, coyotes, and other canines, and their rooting destroys native plants, animal habitat, and cultural resources. For these reasons, wildlife managers in the Smokies remove these non-native hogs. This year, they have removed 608 hogs so far.
In a rut
If you went over to Cataloochee in October, you would have heard the eerie bugle of elk. This metallic-sounding yodel marks the beginning of the rutting season for these large ungulates. During the rut, wildlife manager Joe Yarkovich explained, the bull elk lose the velvet on their antlers and start bugling, fighting other bulls, rubbing trees, and yes, mating. When the leaves start to change, visitors flock to Cataloochee to watch the elk prance and sometimes fight over their choice cows.
After the cold winter, the cow elk will give birth to calves between May and early July. Each cow usually has one calf that weighs between 25 and 40 pounds. In past years, wildlife managers have relocated bears from Cataloochee during the calving season to give the elk newborn calves time to grow. Most of the bears returned to Cataloochee, but the extra time without them helped the elk survival rate immensely, and over time, the elk cows learned to give birth in protected areas and to fend off the bears. In 2009, no bears were moved, although the calf survival rate was still very high.
In other parts of the country, elk migrate seasonally. As we move into the winter in the Smokies, however, we see a largely intact elk herd still in Cataloochee. Only a few individuals wander to other parts of the park. This includes two bulls--#16 and #3—who have spent all year at Harmon Den (exit 7 on I-40) and near Cherokee, respectively. Both of them travel back to Cataloochee on the same day during the rut to fight for the right to breed with the herd.
Return to Resource Roundup: Issue 5.