KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — As Tennessee’s population continues to grow, the state’s black bears are trying to adapt, according to TWRA.
Recent census data shows Tennessee ranks eighth among the fastest-growing states nationally, with nearly 200,000 people relocating to the volunteer state since 2019. East Tennessee’s numbers are similar to the rest of the state. Sevier and Blount Counties have not experienced as dramatic a population increase, but over 14 million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year. The park is home to a large percentage of Tennessee’s 5,500 black bears.
All of this combined makes the likelihood of bear-human interactions in and around East Tennessee’s mountainous areas high, according to TWRA. The interactions are most evident in the towns bordering the park. Tons of food waste from thousands of homes, rental properties, and restaurants scattered across the area attract bears to the area.
Once in town, TWRA says bears interacting with humans encourage a range of “irresponsible human behavior.”
In fact, TWRA wildlife officers respond to 500-1,000 annual calls related to black bears in the area. A large proportion of harassment calls occur in Sevier County.
“The overwhelming desire for a close encounter with a black bear is strangely stronger than common sense,” said Sgt. David Sexton, a wildlife officer who has spent more than two decades in Sevier County. “Many people intentionally feed bears, ignorant of the dire consequences for the bears and the people they leave behind.”
These types of actions led to regulations being passed in 2000 prohibiting anyone from feeding a black bear or leaving food or trash in a manner that attracts bears in a six-square-mile area of Gatlinburg. The regulations were intended to create a buffer zone in hopes that bears would be deterred from encroaching further into the city.
However, the TWRA says there are no bans on feeding bears outside of the GSMNP and this buffer zone in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Despite this, TWRA is working to raise public awareness of the dangers of conforming bears to unnatural foods. Once bears become accustomed to being fed by humans, they can become very dangerous and the frequency of bear-human conflicts increases.
At least five bears have died this summer as a result of interactions with humans. TWRA black bear program coordinator Dan Gibbs says the agency has seen more incidents of bears entering homes and vehicles in 2022 than in any previous year.
“If you leave food or leftover food in your parked vehicle with the windows open or the doors unlocked in the east Grand Division, you risk a bear getting in,” Gibbs said.
In June, a black bear died after becoming stuck in a car parked outside a rental cabin in Sevierville. On the 95 degree day, temperatures inside the vehicle likely reached over 140 degrees. The bear is believed to have tried to leave an empty soda can and a bag of snacks in the car.
“Bears have seven times better noses than bloodhounds and can smell food in a vehicle,” Gibbs said. “Lock your doors, roll up your windows and never leave anything inside that has even the slightest smell of food, including empty food containers, candy wrappers, fast food bags or even air fresheners. If you are camping or picnicking you may have no choice but to lock food in the trunk or cover it with something so it is not visible as bears could also spot the sight of food through the glass and try to get in.”
Other tips to avoid bear interactions and stay bear conscious include:
- Never feed or approach bears
- Secure food, garbage and recycling
- Remove bird feeders when bears are active
- Never leave pet food outdoors
- Clean and store grills
- Alert neighbors to bear activity
- Don’t leave trash or leftover food behind
- Keep dogs on a leash
- Wear bear spray and know how to use it
Additionally, those living in the Smokies are encouraged not to fill bird feeders if they see a bear in the area. In June, a family in South Knoxville had their feeding troughs emptied by a black bear. This incident prompted the family to stop filling their feeding troughs to encourage the bear to leave the area.
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