It may seem as if we know all there is to know about bears after over 40 years of study. As Dr. Frank van Manen explained, we do have a pretty good handle on the natural history of bears, but it’s really just been in the last 10–20 years that we’ve started to understand the long-term dynamics of the black bear population in the Park. In the past, van Manen said, we’ve seen huge forest changes, such as the loss of the chestnut tree due to Chestnut blight. But we have no idea how the loss of this major food source affected bears. We have huge forest changes coming up, too: the loss of the hemlock which will change habitat dramatically. Maybe this change will be positive for bears, because it will open up new habitat for berries and other soft mast foods to grow. And maybe it won’t—we don’t know. For this reason, we need to have ongoing population studies. Monitoring allows us to look at things and timelines that others can’t. Keeping track of bears over time will allow us to see the impact of ongoing events, which managers need.
Keeping track has not only been useful for future planning in the Smokies, it has also helped bears in other protected areas. Based on the long-term database, researchers constructed a “habitat suitability index model”—a computer model that figures out the best conditions for a bear, based on the conditions it has liked in the past—and developed new release techniques for bear reintroductions at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee.