TWRA: Bear population grows in East Tennessee as does the number of visitors

Tennessee

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE)– This is the time of year visitors and residents in the mountains will start to see more bears, according to wildlife resource officials.

That could mean more human and bear interactions, which wouldn’t be ideal for the bears or the humans.

Matt Cameron, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said this is the time of year bears are coming out to look for food.

“They’ll be very active looking for a lot of easy meals, and I think that’s why they are so visible, is because they move a lot looking for food, and that’s what usually gets them into trouble,” Cameron said.

Cameron said bears are mostly omnivorous, but they prefer berries over leafy greens, and berries don’t come out for another few weeks.

He said they go searching for whatever is easiest for them to find and eat, and in high-populated areas, that could be human food.

Cameron said it’s so important for people to properly secure their food and garbage, and not intentionally feed the bears, especially if visitors want to continue to see them.

“When they get hooked on human food, it’s hard to get them to go back and forage on a native diet and so they just become a really big nuisance to the society. And uh, usually ends up with the bear having to be trapped or relocated on the first time or two, and then ultimately it usually ends up in the death of that bear,” Cameron said.

Cameron said this is how it usually works: bears can smell the garbage left out by visitors and residents. If the garbage is properly secured by a bear-proof bin, then the bear knows it’s not an easy food source.

However, they can almost always find an open bin.

(Photo: Seth Brink)

“They go and they try to get in (the trash bin), and if they don’t want to spend a lot of time messing with it, they’ll move on to the next house, and to the next house. When you got thousands upon thousands of houses and cabins in a small area, they’re going to find one eventually that they can get into. And they are very smart animals so they will remember that location, and that’s the one that they’ll continue to come back to,” Cameron said.

Cameron said bears are so smart, they even know when it is trash day.

“They know on Mondays that there’s going to be garbage available because those containers will be open, or they’ll be in the back of a trash bin, the back of a pickup truck, and they will actually come out and go around on whatever day that is and wreak havoc when they’re trying to collect the garbage,” Cameron said.

He said TWRA officers receive photos of that often.

Cameron said, unfortunately, some businesses and rentals that encourage feeding the bears, because it’s good business for them.

Feeding the bears intentionally or unintentionally becomes even more of an issue as the bear population grows, according to Cameron.

He said the bear population is always growing.

Female bears will have anywhere between two to four cubs every other year, and during the off-year, they teach their cubs how to live.

“She is teaching them how to live and how to survive, and if she’s teaching them bad behaviors, then they learn that and they are going to live the rest of their life as a problem bear,” Cameron said.

Those bad behaviors include foraging through trash cans or finding homes or other places where they can get those easy meals.

Again, that’s what leads to bad human and bear interactions, which could lead to the bear’s death, Cameron said.

“It’s sad that sometimes the bear has to pay the price for our actions, but it’s absolutely true and we see that year, after year, after year. It’s the same scenario where people begin to feed them intentionally, or they leave trash cans unsecured,” Cameron said.

Cameron said that right now, East Tennessee has exceeded the cultural caring capacity of bears, which he said is the number of bears that society is willing to tolerate.

The only way to handle the over population of bears is by removing them from the area.

“That’s why we have hunting seasons, and we actually have a special season that surrounds the park up there that’s earlier than the general bear hunting season. And it’s designed to take some of those surplus bears out of that area, to try and reduce these human and bears interactions that we have up there,” Cameron said.

Cameron said the only other method they have for removing targeted bears, or nuisance bears, is by relocating bears.

He said they don’t like to relocate bears because it doesn’t stop the bear from engaging in the same behavior wherever they are moved to.

Cameron also said, most relocated bears end up coming back anyway.

“If we take a bear from here and we move it somewhere else, it’s going to continue to exhibit the same behavior that it’s doing before we took it. It’s just going to do it in another area, or bears have a great GPS unit. They will try make their way back home and most of the time, when we take a bear and move it probably a hundred miles away, it will work itself back,” Cameron said.

As more visitors head to East Tennessee, Cameron said they try to educate the public about being BearWise.

He said that’s difficult though, since visitors are constantly coming and going. But, he said getting the message out there is a team effort with local government officials and the National Park Service with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Cameron said TWRA is currently working to create more videos about bear safety for visitors and residents.

The biggest message they want out there: don’t feed the bears.

“If you enjoy black bears as much as most people do, do everything in your power to reduce their access to human foods,” Cameron said.

Cameron said the popular saying, ‘a fed bear is a dead bear,’ is true, but not in the way some people think it means.

Human food isn’t healthy for bears, but that’s not what necessarily kills them.

“Human food’s not healthy for black bears, you know, it does the same thing to them as it does us. It makes us gain a lot of weight and it can make us have diabetes, and high cholesterol and all that. Well, that happens in bears as well,” Cameron said.

Cameron said TWRA officers don’t like to go out and fine everybody for no reason, but they will fine people who are being purposefully reckless or continually feeding the bears.

If TWRA catches someone feeding the bear, intentionally or unintentionally, they could face a Class B misdemeanor, which could result in a fine of up to $500.

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