NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – While they’re normally seen as cute and cuddly without a care in the world, top state officials are warning that things aren’t looking quite so rosy for the unofficial mascot of the Appalachian Mountains — the black bear.
Dan Gibbs, black bear program coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), spoke with News Channel 11 to discuss what the realities of life for one of the region’s most beloved species. Over the course of his decades-long career with TWRA, Gibbs said bears have remained at the forefront one way or another.
To start, Gibbs said it’s time to retire the term “problem bear,” since more often than not it’s people causing the problem and the bear is just responding. When an easy meal is set out every night, it’s not a surprise to wildlife officials that the animals decide to come back.
“If they live in an area where there’s bears — and know there’s bears — and they continue to leave birdfeeders even though they know bears are coming at eating the bird seed, that’s not a problem bear.” Gibbs said. “That’s an issue with the landowner not doing what they need to do to discourage that bear from coming onto their property.”
In recent years, Gibbs said the number of bears that can actually be relocated is dwindling after more and more have become dependent on trash and human food. If a bear is relocated and it knows a dumpster is a food source, Gibbs said it won’t be long until it’s back alongside humans again. If that’s the case, TWRA officials will likely have to put the creature down.
“If we move it in Tennessee,” Gibbs said. “We’re just taking it somewhere else to be somebody else’s problem.”
To evaluate whether or not a bear falls into the rare scenario that relocation is possible, Gibbs said the TWRA uses a matrix that weighs the behavior, diet and other aspects of the animal.
“If it’s eating natural foods, and it’s being wary of people, then usually we’ll leave it alone,” Gibbs said. “Because it may be like it’s in an apple tree in someone’s backyard, and they go out the backdoor and the bear sees them and it runs off. Well, it’s eating natural food and it’s afraid of people. It’s just taking advantage of a food source.”
Sometimes, however, Gibbs said it’s much too late before wildlife officials know about an animal interacting with humans. Usually, that notification comes in the form of property damage.
“People think it’s cute, they think it’s neat, you’re getting great pictures and all it’s doing is eating a little bit of bird seed or whatever they put out for them,” Gibbs said. “Well, then they come out one day and their garage door’s ripped off. And they want us to come out and do something about it.”
At that point, Gibbs said his team has no choice but to put the bear down.
“Every year it seems like we’re putting more and more bears down for this kind of stuff,” Gibbs said. “And it can all be avoided if people would just secure the attractants from the beginning.”
Instead of trying to find better ways to trap and relocate conflict bears, Gibbs said his office concentrates on turning off the tap: reducing the number of human food sources available outside and preventing bears from becoming dependent on trash to eat. To do that, they use BearWise.
BearWise is a website dedicated to teaching you exactly how to live alongside bears. The species as a whole is quite intelligent, Gibbs said, so taking the steps that BearWise recommends means your car, house or trash can is safer than the next one. And when bears choose carefully between what they think will be an easy meal, those steps count for a lot.
From bear-resistant trash cans to cleaner composting at home, BearWise offers a suite of potential tools for the individual to use. At the town and city level, BearWise lists several ordinance options that could be used for communities that are facing more bear problems. In the Tri-Cities, Gibbs said he hopes to see more widespread use of bear-resistant containers by city services as new construction brings residents and wildlife closer than ever.
For long-term outlooks, Gibbs said the bear population in East Tennessee is healthy and stabilizing. Aside from humans food dependency, the main challenges facing bears in the region stem from disease and traffic injuries, not the overhunting seen in earlier state history. Along the Cumberland Plateau, Gibbs said populations are rising and bumping into local human populations more often.