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Contact: Carol Borneman, (606) 248-2817
In the spring of 2007, tree and flower buds withered and died as temperatures fell below freezing and snow carpeted the landscape. Shortly after this late freeze, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (NHP) rangers received a call that a black bear was in the park campground, looking for easy food sources. Rangers responded and activated their sirens and lights hoping to chase away the bear. The bear did not budge. Park staff then loaded their shotguns with rubber bullets and hazed the bear; the rubber bullets were effective in running off the bear.
After the incident, Cumberland Gap’s ranger staff led by Chief Ranger Dirk Wiley, met with the park’s resource management division led by Resource Management Specialist Jenny Beeler. Research by University of Kentucky graduate students confirmed that Cumberland Gap’s bear population was indeed on the rise. Both the ranger and the resource management staffs knew that unless the park educated park visitors about black bear and their habits, additional incidents would quickly escalate. Both divisions knew that the park’s interpretive division had been very successful in educating the public about the park’s diverse stories through special events. These two divisions approached the interpretive division about hosting a special event that would educate the public about black bear; at the same time, the event would celebrate the return of the black bear to Cumberland Gap and show how this forest denizen and the public could successfully live together. In April 2008, Cumberland Gap hosted its “Black Bear Blast.”
Cumberland Gap’s special events are usually held in September and October when the park’s permanent interpretive staff of four is augmented by a seasonal staff. But in April, seasonal interpreters have not yet come on board. When the ranger and resource management staffs approached the interpretive division about the April 2008 event, both staffs quickly assured the interpretive division that they would create special exhibits for the event and present interpretive programs throughout the weekend.
For several weeks before the event, both ranger and resource management divisions were involved in frenzied activity, connecting with black bear authorities and inviting them to the event. The park’s large format printer was working at full capacity as the resource management division prepared exhibits on black bear habits, the foods which they ate, and what precautions visitors should use to prevent bear-people interactions. Rangers connected with local television stations inviting them to the event.
The April 2008 weekend finally came! On Friday of the event, 800 school children arrived. And by the end of the event, 5000 visitors had attended! Rangers, resource management staff and interpreters presented program after program. Visitors roaming amongst the visitor center grounds were mesmerized by the exhibits. School children were enthralled by an educational demonstration showing rangers tracking down a bear poacher. Visitors eagerly asked park staff about what they should do to help prevent bears from coming into their own backyards. Phone calls came in and one visitor was surprised to learn that her fifty pounds of corn that she was putting out in her yard every several days was not being eaten by deer, but by bear. She quickly stopped that practice. The greatest result of the “Black Bear Blast” was that though bear populations have increased within Cumberland Gap, there have been zero instances of bear-human incidents!
Interdivisional cooperation insured that what could have become a serious visitor threat and major resource management concern was turned into a celebration. This celebration now continues as visitors inform us of bear sightings. But the bear are doing exactly what wild bear should do: keeping well away from visitors and human food and feeding on natural foods provided in their habitat.
This perfect combination of excellence in providing educational programs to the public and interdivisional cooperation has led to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park staff in receiving the National Park Service’s Southeast Region’s 2009 “Keeper of the Light Award” for interpretive support. Chief Ranger Dirk Wiley and Chief of Interpretation Carol Borneman accepted this award on behalf of the park at a recent National Park Service Superintendent’s conference held at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville, TN. Park Superintendent Mark Woods explains that the award is the Southeast Region’s highest award for excellence in interpretation and education. Woods further highlights that this is the third time that Cumberland Gap has been the recipient of the Keeper of the Light award since the award’s inception in 2001. “Cumberland Gap is one of 72 national park units within the National Park Service’s Southeast Region. Receiving the award three times is certainly an honor and I am extremely proud of all Cumberland Gap employees, as they truly epitomize the meaning of teamwork and excellence.”