HAMPTON, Tenn. (WJHL) — Bears are really inventive when it comes to getting at humans’ food, and that’s already causing problems in area campgrounds and campsites, U.S. Forest Service officials told News Channel 11 on Wednesday. But those problems, including occasional campground closures and euthanizations of bears, are largely avoidable, Wildlife Biologist David Stone said.
“Black bears in particular are extremely omnivorous, they’ll eat just about anything, and they have a very keen sense of smell,” Stone said.
People can minimize or eliminate the unfortunate consequences of human-bear interactions if they simply follow a “food storage order” regarding bears, which was put in place more than five years ago. It can be viewed here.
“We have had some incidents already in the forest this year,” Stone said while standing a stone’s throw from the Cardens Bluff campground on Watauga Lake.
A few miles further up the lake, the dispersed Little Stoney campsite was temporarily closed Tuesday after a bear destroyed a tent it had smelled food in. Two sections of the Appalachian Trail are also temporarily closed to camping within the Unaka Ranger District, the Spring Mountain Shelter in Greene County and the section from Tanyard Gap (U.S. Highway 70) and Deep Gap, also in Greene County.
“We have a thriving bear population,” Stone said. “It’s actually a conservation success story where numbers have increased over the years through conservation measures.”
That means there will be more human-bear interactions, especially in the spring when bears are coming out of hibernation, and in the fall when they enter a phase known as “hyperphagia” and eat voraciously to put on fat for their winter hibernation.
“You can find bears in campgrounds when food isn’t disposed of or contained properly,” Stone said. The same holds true on hiking trails, where hikers often know to keep their food at least 12 feet off the ground, but sometimes leave “trail magic”, like fruit or treats for hikers that come along behind them, Stone said.
“That bear repeatedly finds food on that trail, or he found candy bar wrappers or, you know, banana peels, orange rinds, things like that, and it just starts keying in on those spots,” Stone said. “Then eventually it starts losing its fear of humans, and will begin to approach humans and that’s when it becomes dangerous.”
Usually, the bear comes out as the loser in those cases. After the Forest Service closes campgrounds or areas, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) sometimes has to euthanize the bear because it can’t shake its habit of seeking food in populated areas.
“The first approach is to remove the source of food, and hopefully that bear will eventually move off. If that bear does not move off, then unfortunately it does have to be trapped and euthanized,” Stone said.
The closures also create disruption and inconvenience for the public. Cardens Bluff closed for two weeks in June 2022 when a bear repeatedly took food and trash from the campground.
One of the campground hosts there captured a bear on video apparently looking for a treat in the middle of the night in early May, but closures usually don’t occur until repeated incidents happen involving food.
Stone said bears are attracted to more than food. Toiletries, gum and other items can be a problem as well. He said the food storage order allows for violators to be cited.
“We want people to come out and enjoy the forest but we want them to do it in a safe manner for the wildlife and for their fellow visitors,” he said.