SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The increasing flow of human population in Tennessee has led to area bears adapting to the growing changes.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) said in a news release Monday that since 2019, nearly 200,000 people have relocated to the Volunteer State, making it the eighth fastest-growing state.
East Tennessee in particular — with the Smoky Mountains and other high-trafficked parks where a large percentage of Tennessee’s 5,500 black bears live — has seen increased interactions between bears and people.
“Put simply, the odds of bear-human interactions are high in and around the mountainous areas of East Tennessee,” the TWRA said. “These interactions are most evident in park border towns in Sevier and Blount counties.”
News Channel 11 has reported several incidents in the Northeast Tennessee coverage area, including a bear displaying aggressive behavior that had to be removed from a camping area on Watauga Lake. Wildlife officials stressed that leaving food exposed and feeding bears increases the risk of them returning to certain areas and thinking of them as easy food sources.
“The overwhelming desire to have a close encounter with a black bear is strangely more powerful than common sense,” says Sgt. David Sexton, a wildlife officer who’s spent more than two decades in Sevier County. “Many people intentionally feed bears with little regard for the dire consequences to the bears and humans they leave behind.”
Another TWRA spokesperson said leaving food or trash from the food inside unlocked vehicles or vehicles with lowered windows attracts the creatures to rummage for a quick meal. Wildlife officials referenced back to a June incident that killed a bear.
“In June, a black bear died after getting stuck inside a car parked outside a Sevierville rental cabin on a 95-degree day as temperatures inside the vehicle likely reached over 140 degrees,” the news release read. “The culprit appeared to only have been an empty soda can and snack food bag.”
TWRA Black Bear Program Coordinator Dan Gibbs said bears’ sense of smell outranks that of a bloodhound.
“Bears have noses seven times better than a bloodhound and can smell food inside a vehicle,” Gibbs said. “Lock your doors, roll up your windows, and never leave anything inside that has even the faintest odor of food including empty food containers, candy wrappers, fast food bags or even air fresheners.”
While campers may not have a choice but to keep food nearby, they are encouraged to store it in a locked trunk, bear-proof storage or to cover it, as bears recognize even the sight of food.