Summertime brings about a plethora of outdoor activities including cookouts, camping and fun on the water. It also brings out the black bears.
Reports of bear sightings are circulating around east Tennessee, which comes at no surprise considering this is bear country. Increased activity is also expected this time of year as bears continue their quest to replenish their energy and fatten back up from a long, lean winter.
Last fall, hard mast production was sparse and in particular, the acorn crop was very spotty. Black bears depend heavily on acorns as a food source to pack on those extra pounds before entering their winter dens. Many bears went into their dens malnourished and some were so lean that they didn’t den at all. For example, Appalachian Bear Rescue in Townsend took in numerous cubs that were about 10 months of age that weighed a mere 6 and 7 pounds.
Many bears emerged from their winter dens much leaner than in normal years and have been anxiously waiting the ripening of the summer berries. Fortunately, black berries, raspberries, dewberries and mulberries are coming into season and bears are reaping the bounties. Bears will also enjoy blueberries and huckleberries as the summer progresses followed by wild grapes, cherries and other fruits that will hopefully carry them over until the hard mast matures this fall.
“The ripening of the berries is a significant event for bears this year as springtime foods have been hard to come by,” says TWRA Black Bear Coordinator Dan Gibbs. “Many bears have opted to utilize humans as a source of food, diving into garbage cans and raiding the bird feeders at will. And while it may seem tempting to try and give handouts to hungry bears, habituating them to humans is one of the worst things that can happen to them.”
Citizens and visitors alike should be proactive in their efforts to ensure that bears remain wild, thus reducing bear-human interactions. Nationwide bear management experience has clearly shown that bears attracted to human food sources, or that are deliberately fed by humans, have a relatively short life. The survival rate of bears receiving food from people is likely a fraction of that of “wild” bears that do not have repeated contact with humans. The deliberate and accidental feeding of bears is socially irresponsible and causes animals to become conditioned and habituated to people. Bears that habituate to human presence eventually become a threat to human safety. The end result is that such bears are often killed by intolerant and/or fearful landowners or have to be destroyed by the TWRA. The fact that “garbage kills bears” is irrefutable.
The primary corrective action to this management dilemma is to simply restrict the access bears have to human foods. However, state and federal agencies have confronted significant challenges in bringing about even moderate changes to human behavior to achieve greater safety for humans and bears. Tennessee residents and visitors can support bears by taking steps to ensure that wild bears remain “wild” by carefully managing sources of human food or garbage that might attract bears. The wise stewardship of habitat we share with bears is the joint responsibility of both wildlife managers and the public and will be essential for a viable future for our state treasure, the black bears of Tennessee.
Remember these Bear Wise Basics when residing or vacationing in bear country:
• Never feed or approach bears.
• Do not store food, garbage, or recyclables in areas accessible to bears.
• Do not feed birds or other wildlife where bears are active.
• Feed outdoor pets a portion size that will be completely consumed during each meal and securely store pet foods.
• Keep grills and smokers clean and stored in a secure area when not in use.
• Talk to family and neighbors when bear activity is occurring in your area.
The U.S. Forest Service also offers this information for visitors at campgrounds and picnic areas:
• Keep a clean site by properly disposing of: All garbage, including fruit rinds and cores, aluminum foil (even from grills) that has been used to cook or store food, plastic wrap and bags that have stored food, and cans and jars that are empty.
• Pick up food scraps around your site.
• Never leave food or coolers unattended (unless inside a vehicle or hard-sided camper).
• Wipe down tabletops before vacating your site.
• If a bear approaches your site, pack up your food and trash. If necessary, attempt to scare the animal away with loud shouts, by banging pans together, or even throwing rocks and sticks at it. If the bear is persistent, move away slowly to your vehicle or another secure area.
While in the backcountry:
• Hang food and anything with strong odors (toothpaste, bug repellent, soap, etc.) at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from a tree or limb, or use special food storage boxes and cable systems if available.
• Do not cook or store food in or near your tent (food odors on tent or gear may attract a bear.)
• If a bear approaches, frighten it by yelling, banging pans together, or throwing rocks.
• Do respect bears and admire them from a distance.
• Pack out trash — don’t bury it.
Any time you see a bear:
• Do not feed or toss food to a bear or any wild animal.
• Keep children close at hand.
• Keep pets indoors or in a vehicle or camper.
• Do not approach a bear—they are dangerous. If it changes its natural behavior (feeding, foraging, or movement) because of your presence, you are too close.
• Never surround or corner a bear.
• Never run from a bear — back slowly away and make lots of noise.
• Encourage others to follow these instructions.
• Be responsible. Improper behavior on your part may cause the bear to die.
• In the extreme case that you are attacked by a black bear, try to fight back using any object available. Act aggressively and intimidate the bear by yelling and waving your arms. Playing dead is not appropriate.
• Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
• Carry bear pepper spray.
• Read all signs at the trail head.
• Hike in a group, keep children close at hand.
• Make your presence known (call out).
• Hike during daylight hours and stay on the trail.
• Watch for bear signs: scat, claw marks, diggings, logs or stumps torn apart, etc.