Bear, tourist interactions change over years

Published in The Ledger, July 31, 2015

Gone are the days when park visitors could feed bears through their car windows. Several measures taken by park officials have helped safeguard both the bears and visitors. -- Submitted

Perhaps the most iconic symbol of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the black bear, or Ursus americanus.

A chance to see a bear is one of the primary reasons people pack their bags and head to the woods. Whether it’s a chance encounter while hiking through the back country or a photo opportunity while on a drive through Cades Cove, black bears are active in all areas and elevations of the park.

In the early days of the park, photographs depict visitors getting out of their cars and feeding the bears by hand, sometimes even petting. Since the late 1960s, rangers and park officials have worked to manage human interaction with the bears.

Because the park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States where black bears can live in wild, natural surroundings, the bear population in the park has increased over the years. According, there are currently close to 2,000 black bears living in the park.

The active bear population has caused some issues in recent years. While there is a bear management plan in place, the real management comes from the people who visit the park.

Park rangers and volunteers take measures every day to protect bears and visitors such as patrolling the park’s most popular trails and picnic areas in order to educate visitors about cleaning up unattended food or scrapes.

They also help manage roadside bear jams and encourage visitors to stay in their vehicles when they see a bear. Education through resources at the visitors’ center, articles in the park’s newspaper and safety videos on various websites has also helped protect bears from overly friendly visitors.

Installation of bear-proof dumpsters and trash cans throughout the park have significantly cut down on the number of bears foraging through trash in hopes of finding food scraps left behind. Using innovative and proactive techniques to keep bears shy and afraid of people, wildlife managers actively monitor the bear activity in park. Because of their approach, more bears are able to remain in the park.

The ones who do escape the park, however, sometimes never make it back. There are several reasons why bears leave the sanctuary of the park, from lack of food to competition among the population. Sometimes mother bears leave with the offspring in tow, but are killed or hit by a passing vehicle, leaving their newborn cubs as orphans.

Luckily, those orphan cubs have a fighting chance to make it back to the wild because of the Appalachian Bear Rescue, a nonprofit organization that cares for and rehabilitates injured and orphaned bear cubs, conducts research on returning cubs to the wild and educates the public about how to coexist with black bears.

Bears in the Smokies can grow to six feet in length and up to three feet high at the shoulder. When the summer is in full swing, a male black bear can weigh 250 pounds, while the female bears, who are generally smaller, weigh just over 100 pounds. Black bears really put on the pounds during the fall, sometimes even doubling their weight. If a bear has little to no interaction with humans, it can live 15 years or more.

However, once a bear has tasted that leftover picnic and had access to garbage, their life expectancy is cut in half.

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