“The black bear is the symbol of the Smokies,” says wildlife biologist Bill Stiver. Looking around Gatlinburg, Tennessee and other towns that border the national park, this seems undeniable. From black bear t-shirts to carved bear-shaped logs, representations of this charismatic bear are everywhere. In the past, many people expected to find the same bear in the park that they’d seen in the stores: a grinning, shaggy, friendly animal. Visitors came to the Smokies—and other national parks, from Yellowstone to Yosemite— not only to see wildlife, but to get up close and feed them. This resulted in some great photos, but it also led to hundreds of conflicts resulting in the death of many bears and injuries to people.
The current bear population estimate—1,500 to 1,600 bears—is the largest ever recorded here, yet you may be less likely to glimpse one than ever before. The reason is that more bears are wild. Over the years, the number of “nuisance bears,” (animals that bother or are aggressive toward humans) has dropped significantly. Thoughtful and successful bear management from wildlife staff—along with help from park maintenance, law enforcement, resource education, and visitors like you—has made the co-existence of humans and bears possible.
In addition to better management, we also know much more about the black bears themselves, due in large part to professors such as Dr. Mike Pelton (now retired) and Dr. Frank van Manen, and many graduate researchers at the University of Tennessee. These researchers have conducted bear population—and more recently, genetic—studies in the Smokies since 1968.
Keeping Our Bears Wild
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.
Success Story at Chimneys Picnic Area
For wildlife managers such as Kim Delozier, an evening drive to the Chimneys Picnic Area to deal with a nuisance bear became all too common. Visitors started lining up lawn chairs at dusk to watch bears pouring over the hillside to feed off of picnic tables and out of trash cans.
In just 3 years at Chimneys, from 1988-1990, wildlife managers handled (captured) 24 different bears—8 per year, on average—and relocated bears 35 times—often the same bears over and over. During that same period, managers had to euthanize 3 bears that had become aggressive toward humans. One of these bears seriously attacked a visitor, who had to be hospitalized for 10 days.
Wildlife biologists saw that it wasn’t only bear behavior they had to change: they needed the buy-in from visitors who were used to—and loved—feeding and watching the bears, and they needed logistical support from within the Park itself. Working together, they hoped, would not only control bears that were already problems, but prevent wild bears from associating humans and human areas with easy food.
The plan that managers began in 1991 at Chimneys included
The results of proactive management were that fewer bears had to be moved or killed, and fewer visitors were injured. At Chimneys, the improvements in bear and human safety were dramatic. In the 17 year period following the new management strategy (1991-2008), managers handled an average of 3 bears per year (about 60 percent fewer bears than before), and only had to relocate 1-2 bears (about 87 percent fewer bears) each year. Managers, maintenance, and other staff implemented many of the new policies park-wide.
The Park also began coordinating with communities outside its borders —Gatlinburg, Cosby, Townsend, Pigeon Forge, Cherokee, and their surrounding developed areas—to reduce bear problems in the entire region. Bears can move easily between the Park and these communities, and as Bill Stiver said, “You can have 10 people in the neighborhood doing the right thing [by not feeding bears], and just one doing the wrong thing. And then you have a nuisance bear.” Many individuals in these communities shared the goals & policies regarding bear-proof garbage cans and zero-tolerance for feeding wildlife.
“Where did all the bears go?” ask many visitors who knew Chimneys and its bears in the 1980s. To wildlife managers, this question at a time when the actual bear population is at historically high levels means that the proactive, preventative management has been successful. “We didn’t move any bears out of Chimneys,” says Bill Stiver. “We just became more proactive [in bear management] and it’s working to keep the bears wild and out of human spaces where people would see them. Overall, we’re trying to manage for wild bears, and wild bears are afraid of people.”
Black Bears and You
Bears depend on responsible decisions by visitors like you to stay safe and healthy. Ninety-eight percent of bears in the park are wild animals that avoid humans: they feed and wander in the forests and grasslands. We glimpse these wild bears playing in streams, munching acorns deep in the forest, or sometimes loping across the fields of Cades Cove. The 2 percent of bears that we consider “nuisance bears” have gradually lost their fear of humans, becoming first “night active” in human areas, and then “day active” nuisance bears that approach people, beg for food, or tear into tents. This process happens as humans enter bears’ territory, leave food unattended in picnic areas or backcountry campsites, and approach bears trying to feed or cross the road.
The sliding scale of bear “badness”
The way the Park manages bears depends on where the animals are on the scale of wild to food conditioned (approaching people for their food), which managers gauge by the time of day of the bear’s activity and the extent to which the bear approaches humans. Each of the following techniques is an attempt to create a negative (or scary) experience that outweighs the possible positive experience (such as a food reward) that the bear gets from raiding trash cans or going after scraps.
Bear management is largely human management, say wildlife biologists; most of their work comes in preventing problem bears by enlisting the help of visitors like you, as they did successfully at the Chimneys picnic area.
Nine million people visit the Smokies annually, and most have impeccable manners when it comes to not feeding or approaching bears. However, as Bill Stiver said, even if we have 90 percent cooperation, that’s still almost 1,000,000 people who could start a wild bear on the path to becoming a nuisance bear. You can help by keeping food away from bears wherever you are in the Smokies and simply watching—without approaching or following—bears that you may see in the Park. Rules in the Smokies state that “willfully approaching within 50 yards of a bear or within any distance that results in their disturbance or displacement is prohibited.” It’s not good for you or the bears. Remember: Your actions keep our bears wild and alive.
Keep Bears and Your Family Safe
Keeping human food away from bears is the most important step we can take to keep bears—and ourselves—safe.
When you’re picnicking & hiking:
When you’re backpacking in or through the park:
Always report bear activity such as bears approaching people, taking packs, begging for food, or acting aggressively to Park Rangers when you get back from your trip.
Return to Dispatches from the Field: Issue 3.
Last updated: July 31, 2015