GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — The Great Smoky Mountains National Park reopened to visitors May 9, and ever since, park rangers have been busy dealing with bears coming too close to humans.
Bill Stiver, supervisory wildlife biologist for GSMNP, said they received multiple reports in the past few days about a couple of bears on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail that appeared to be “highly food-conditioned.”
Stiver said a food-conditioned bear has had human food before, and was no longer afraid of getting close to vehicles or humans in the search for food.
The bear was captured and relocated near the Cherokee National Forrest.
Stiver said June is the park’s busiest month of bear-human interactions.
“The berries are not ripe yet and bears have been out of hibernation for a few months and they’re hungry,” Stiver said.
He said that bears have very strong smelling capabilities, which means they can smell food left in vehicles or at campsites.
Stiver said if the bears are still afraid of humans, they might only go to campsites at night scavenging for food. Once they know good food is right around the corner and easy to obtain, they will continue to go back for more.
“Pretty soon they’ll become bolder and bolder because you’ve rewarded them for coming into our space. And that behavior changes over time to a bear that’s afraid of us and lurking around the perimeter at night, all the way to a bear that’s bold and willing to walk into our space during the day,” Stiver said.
Since the park reopened, Stiver said they have had 11 reported human-bear conflicts, and captured and removed (not necessarily out of GSMNP) five of them.
GSMNP has more than 12 million visitors a year, and is home to about 1,500 bears, Stiver said.
He said it’s important visitors don’t feed the bears, leave any food out or leave doors unlocked so they can remain wild and fearful of humans.
Stiver said tossing biodegradable food on the ground is the same as feeding a bear directly; adding that the phrase “a fed bear is a dead bear” is a little outdated, but the concept still rings true.
Although the park uses euthenasia as a last resort for a food-conditioned bear, that’s not the only fatal consequence if a bear becomes accustomed to eating human food.
“Relocating a bear to another area and it gets hit by a car, or killed by a hunter or causes deprivation and gets killed by a landowner, or whatever it may be. The end result is the death of a bear as well,” Stiver said.
(Photos courtesy of Paulette Coutlier)
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