GREENE COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A female bear with two yearling cubs paid an unwanted visit to a campsite Friday, causing yet another Northeast Tennessee campground closure on U.S. Forest Service (USFS) land.
This time it’s the 15-site campground at Horse Creek — and a USFS ranger says the bears are not to blame for encounters like the one Friday, which included the mother bear popping her jaws in warning at a sheriff’s deputy who came to evict a person camping illegally near the campground.
“The message that we want to get out is, we’re not closing the campground because of the bear, we are closing it because people are not storing their food correctly,” said Leslie Morgan, who oversees the Unaka Ranger District.
She said a sheriff’s deputy was called to an illegal campsite very close to the official campground and heard yelling when he arrived.
“It was the guy that was camping and the bear was getting in his tent,” Morgan said. “He went down there to where the guy was yelling and the bear bluff charged him and popped its jaws, basically a warning saying ‘get away.’ I’m really surprised the sheriff’s deputy didn’t shoot the bear. The bear was within 10 feet of him.”
The bear and her two cubs ran away with no one hurt.
The campground closure didn’t happen just because of the Friday night encounter. Rather, it was the result of what the USFS and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) staff found — multiple sites with improper food storage during two additional visits to the campground.
“Saturday night, Forest Service employees and the state employees were walking around talking to people about keeping their food up and what bearproof means and how you store your food,” Morgan said.
The message apparently didn’t sink in.
“The next morning, they got down there early in the morning and people were asleep and all this food and trash and everything was still left out in their campsites.”
Morgan said it was another example of bears and humans meeting in the wrong places this spring. With area bears a bit hungrier than normal due to a light hard mast season (fewer acorns than average) last fall, the chance of bears finding their way to improperly stored human or pet food is high.
A Cherokee National Forest food storage order has been in effect since 2017. It lists three things that must be left in bear-resistant containers, in a vehicle inside solid material, or suspended at least 12 feet off the ground and six feet from limbs: food, “bear attractant” and trash.
Bear attractant is any substance with an odor that could attract bears including grease, drinks, personal hygiene products, empty food containers and more.
“We wrote some tickets and we’re going to write more,” Morgan said. Citations come with a $50 fine along with a $30 processing fee.
The USFS temporarily closed the Paint Creek Campground, also in Greene County, in mid-May after a bear-human encounter there. Carden’s Bluff Campground on Watauga Lake was closed a few weeks earlier.
The TWRA often sets bear traps in the aftermath of those encounters and it did in both Greene County cases. The Paint Creek bear did not return and so far, neither has the sow that visited Horse Creek.
“It’s hard to catch a bear when there’s people there and there’s other food sources available, so that’s another reason why we needed to close it,” she said. “We moved the trap up into the campground.”
If the bear estimated at 150 pounds is trapped, it will be relocated to a remote area with hopes that it doesn’t return to places populated with humans. Repeat offenders sometimes end up having to be euthanized by the TWRA.
Meanwhile, the cubs are about to get pushed out of her orbit when she goes into heat this summer, and they’ve learned this kind of behavior that could shorten their lives.
“She’s teaching them to do this (forage for human food sources),” Morgan said.
She said homeless campers have been part of this year’s problem, partly because most of them don’t have cars or other places to safely store their food, trash or bear attractants.
“People think they’re helping the folks that are homeless by bringing them in there and paying for their camp for two weeks at a time, but they’re putting them in a very dangerous situation and they’re putting other people in dangerous situations.”