GREENE COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — It’s the kind of bear mathematics that can add up to some troublesome spring encounters at campgrounds and campsites: more people enjoying nature and less “hard mast” (acorns) last fall as bears fattened up for hibernation.

“This fall of ’22 we had not a great year,” Leslie Morgan said as she stood at the recently reopened Paint Creek Campground. “It wasn’t a hard mast failure, but it was not a great hard mast, so they woke up hungry.”

The U.S. Forest Service Unaka District Ranger made the call in mid-May to close the campground for nearly a week. That came after a bear rummaged through a campers’ trash bag that was left out, then snuffled around the tent, bringing the sleepy campers face to face with the large dark mammal.

“They both kind of scared each other,” Morgan said of the bear and the humans. “The bear stood up on his back legs and huffed and popped its jaws — that’s a warning. It scared them really bad and the bear ran off, but it grabbed the trash as it took off.”

It was an early sign of bold behavior around humans, so Morgan immediately closed the campground. That marked one of several closures by the USFS of Northeast Tennessee campgrounds this spring.

Unaka District Ranger Leslie Morgan of the U.S. Forest Service at Paint Creek Campground. (WJHL photo)

Morgan said the sparse fall mast season is a factor in the frequent number of bear encounters this spring.

“Bears will gorge themselves on acorns in the fall and put on a tremendous amount of fat,” Morgan said. “That’s what gets them through the winter months when they’re denned up and they’re not really out and about moving.”

If the Southern Appalachians’ estimated several thousand bears have a less than satisfactory fall feeding season, they don’t wake up with just a normal degree of hunger.

“They’re going to wake up in the spring, late winter hangry (hungry and angry),” Morgan said.

But a bunch of skinnier-than-usual bears don’t have to translate into campground closures, ransacked tents and campsites, risk of human injury and even greater risk to bears. The animals sometimes must be trapped by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) and relocated or even euthanized when they transgress.

Morgan lays the primary blame squarely at the feet of people who are enjoying the Southern Appalachian forests and mountains more than ever, but often doing so without adequate knowledge of how to operate in bear country.

“This is their home, this is their habitat,” Morgan said. “They have no other choice, and so you’re invading their home. So it is your responsibility as a visitor in their home to manage your campsite or your area so that they don’t get in trouble.”

Get in trouble they will, Morgan said, particularly in the spring and again in the fall when they enter “hyperphagia” to pack on the fat for winter.

With bears’ favorite natural summer food like berries and persimmons not yet ripe, “they’re looking for an easy food source,” Morgan said.

“They don’t have a lot of energy to expend on chasing and killing something to eat, so they’re going to be curious and opportunistic in any food source that comes available to them.”

Being ‘bear wise’

Kevin Willett missed some family camping at Paint Creek when the campground closed, but he was back at a favorite spot with kids and grandkids in tow when it reopened.

“We didn’t stay the night the bear come but when we come the next night they told us we had to leave,” Willett said as young family members ranging in age from about 2 to about 12 played at the campsite.

Kevin Willett missed one trip to Paint Creek while it was closed but quickly returned. (WJHL photo)

He said even his grandkids know how to avoid the kind of outcome the unlucky campers experienced.

“I’m teaching the kids that, too. They made sure I put the peanut butter up so a bear wouldn’t eat it.” 

Morgan said while bears are smart, highly curious, strong and crafty, an entire campground can be a no-snack zone for bears if people take appropriate precautions.

“The biggest thing is just keeping your campsite really clean,” she said. “Making sure every single day you’re taking your trash to the dumpster or in the garbage if they’ve got bear-proof garbage cans.”

The problem isn’t limited to camping and wilderness areas, though. Bear populations have been healthy and thriving in the region, and with fewer people hunting them and more people around, encounters in populated areas are also common.

Morgan said cubs in particular are trying to find food sources and “set their home ranges” when they first get pushed out on their own by mothers who are ready to start breeding again.

“They’re going to end up in places just because they don’t know any better,” Morgan said. “So it’s our responsibility living in bear country, to keep your dog food up at night, keep your trash put up at night, especially if you live near a wooded area.”

Just about anything someone would need to know to avoid contributing to a problem that could end a bear’s life or put other people at risk is available on the Bearwise website.

TWRA reported 1,184 bear-related calls in 2020, 870 in 2021 and 1,023 in 2022. An average of 284 each of those years were food-related, and garbage was a factor in 22% of all calls.

An excellent summary on black bears in Tennessee on TWRA’s website provides additional information on co-existing with bears. It notes that the age-old adages “garbage kills bears” and “a fed bear is a dead bear” are accurate.

That summary notes that restricting bears’ access to human food is the “primary corrective action” to prevent the animals from becoming habituated to humans. But, “state and federal agencies have confronted significant challenges in bringing about even moderate changes to human behavior to achieve greater safety for humans and bears,” it adds.

Morgan, who has been a bear biologist during part of a long career with USFS, thinks “our future for bears here is really good.”

But it will be about another month before bears are out of the woods for a few months human encounter-wise. Until then, some that have become habituated run the risk of capture and relocation or worse.

That didn’t happen in the case of the Paint Creek bear.

“It never came back,” Morgan said. “TWRA came down and did set a trap, monitored it, but it never showed up. Maybe it learned its lesson.”

If it hadn’t, the bear would have been attracted by bait inside the long, culvert-like trap with a “slam-door” at the front end. Once a bear gets in far enough and takes the bait, that door slams behind it. From there, protocols kick in.

“Without a doubt, if it goes hands-on (to humans) we’re going to probably euthanize it, but if it’s still exhibiting some natural normal behaviors we may actually what we call work it up like will immobilize it, put a tattoo in it, put a tag on its ear,” Morgan said.

“There’s a lot of research going on on tracking bears right now, we could set a radio collar on it, to be able to track it.”

Morgan said an estimated 3,000-plus black bears live in the massive Southern Appalachian corridor between the region just south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Southwest Virginia.