Black Bears on the Mend

A committed park staff and the latest in research and medical techniques have made Great Smoky Mountains National Park a model for bear protection

  • Rene Ebersole
  • Aug 01, 2005

TWO HUNDRED POUNDS of black fur and solid muscle sprawl on a gurney in a small room at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. The patient, a wild black bear captured at a popular picnic area in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is being prepped for x-rays. National Park Service biologist Bill Stiver paces in the hallway, waiting for the doctor’s prognosis. An hour ticks by. Then veterinarian Ed Ramsey emerges from the x-ray room. “This bear had better learn karate—his teeth are in bad shape,” Ramsey says. “We’ll have to do some root canals.”

Stiver is not surprised. He has approved dental surgery for bears before, an indication of the lengths to which authorities will go to keep the Great Smokies icon out of trouble. “Teeth are the weak link for bears,” Stiver says. “When the teeth go, they become nuisance bears, eating garbage and strolling through picnic areas. Once the problem is corrected, we tend not to see these animals anymore.”

Successful bear conservation, with a minimum of confrontations between bears and park visitors, has long been a challenge within the 800 square miles of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. In the not-too-distant past, park bears seemed about to vanish. Diligent management has produced a prodigious black bear population, making the park a model for preserving threatened and endangered bruins worldwide. But further challenges lie ahead in reducing the occasional conflicts that arise between the park’s 1,600 to 1,800 bears and the 10 million people who visit each year, predominantly in the peak bear-viewing months of July and August.

A medium-sized member of the bear family—averaging 135 to 350 pounds, with exceptional individuals topping out at more than 600—the American black bear is widely distributed in forested areas throughout North America, although it has been extirpated from some parts of its historic range. The black bear is unique among bear species because its status throughout much of its range is stable, if not improving. However, this has not always been the case, particularly in the Smoky Mountains.

Great Smokies’ black bears during the past 150 years have endured logging, human settlement and the decline of one of their key food sources, the American chestnut—a tree that once dominated eastern forests but that was virtually wiped out as a viable species when an Asian blight reached North America about 100 years ago. Scientists speculate that only a few bears were left in the high elevations of the park when Congress created it in 1934. “If it had not been for the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s possible we would have lost the black bear here and through most of the southern Appalachians,” says Frank van Manen, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist studying bears in collaboration with the University of Tennessee.


The bears responded quickly to park protection. By the 1950s, they were once again routinely spotted along roads. Then, in 1968, Michael Pelton, a professor emeritus of wildlife science at the University of Tennessee and an expert on bears, received an alarming phone call from park staff. “They were concerned because people weren’t seeing the bears as often,” he says. With no way to monitor the bear population, staff feared that the bears were again sinking toward oblivion. “I was intrigued,” Pelton says.

So intrigued that he spearheaded a project to provide the data the park service needed. He and his team captured, weighed, measured, tagged and radio-collared bears for monitoring after release. The researchers also counted growth rings on bear premolars to determine age and took blood and hair samples now being used to create a DNA databank that will help shed further light on family histories and population size and density, among other things. “We build life tables on bears just like insurance companies do on us,” says Pelton.

By the late 1970s, research showed that the park’s bear population was again steadily rising. The animals were increasingly found knocking over trash cans and hunting for fried chicken and watermelon handouts at the national park’s popular Chimneys Picnic Area. “We had a lot of garbage bears, and garbage kills bears,” says park wildlife biologist Kim DeLozier, who first joined the park service in the late 1970s. Bears feeding in picnic grounds and from garbage cans tend to come in contact with people, and when bears and people mix, bears often do not fair well. Some are injured or killed by vehicles, and others must be euthanized because of aggressive behavior. Part of DeLozier’s job involved capturing such animals and relocating them to areas with lower human densities.

Because black bears, especially males, have keen navigational skills, many relocated animals trotted quickly back to the park to raise a ruckus or fell into the crosshairs of a rifle along the way. DeLozier grew frustrated with the lack of success in discouraging garbage bears. He knew the crux of the problem was the bears’ tendency to associate people with food. He wanted to break that cycle. The first step was simple in concept but tough to enforce: making sure food scraps and garbage were secure in bear-proof trash cans.

The next steps relied on the scientific methods honed by Pelton’s graduate students. The park began to administer adversive conditioning—teaching bears to associate human foods with pain and discomfort. “We use the analogy of a kid who steals pencils,” DeLozier explains. “Rather than letting that kid grow up to be a habitual bank robber, you break his habit when he’s still young.” The first time a park bear is caught sneaking a bite of trash in a public area at night, wildlife managers capture it, fit it with identifying ear tags and examine it for physical ailments.

When studies showed that bears with bad teeth frequently abandon their usual diet, rich in hard nuts, in favor of softer human fare such as doughnuts, park staff in the late 1980s began administering dental treatments. Now, if a bear needs a root canal, it usually gets one, because studies also showed that the handling associated with dental treatment, plus a few rubber bullets fired at a bear’s retreating butt when the animal is released into the wild, can nip a garbage habit in the bud. Such hands-on work has become a necessity. “Bears bite trash cans and break their teeth,” says DeLozier. “If we have the knowledge and resources to help those animals get back to good health and function in the park, I think we have a responsibility to do that.”


A bear that continues its criminal streak receives repeated doses of capture, handling and release. But if a junk food addict with good teeth becomes bold enough to stalk picnic areas in broad daylight, park wildlife managers conclude that it poses a danger to people. They transport the bear to a national forest at least 40 air miles beyond the site where the animal was captured, the distance required to keep most bears from returning.

Although biologists have managed bears successfully within the park, the expanding population and a few years of failed acorn crops prompted the application of bear management beyond park borders. During years of reduced acorns—a crucial bear food—throngs of the animals sought food in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a popular tourist town just outside park gates. “Bears are big business in Gatlinburg,” says David Brandenburg, who was hired as the city’s first full-time wildlife officer in 2001. “People come to Gatlinburg to see bears. They want to feed the bears so they can have a bear encounter—it’s something to write home about. The things tourists will do to get a picture of a bear, it’s just amazing. They don’t use common sense. These animals can kill people.”

In the past, many Gatlinburg businesses accommodated the tourists’ yen for bears. One popular hotel until 1998 offered a special “bear suite” with a deluxe view of the hotel’s overflowing garbage dumpster, a bear magnet. “There could be as many as 22 bears on that dumpster,” Brandenburg says, “but not anymore. In two years I moved over 40 bears out of Gatlinburg to a sanctuary in Poke County, on the Georgia state line. It gets these bears away from people and garbage.”

Brandenburg emphasizes the sentiment shared by many of his colleagues: “The bears aren’t the problem, we are.” But the problem can be fixed, he says. “I would like to think we can still have bears in Gatlinburg. We just don’t need to reward them with food for being here. We can control the risk by keeping garbage contained. I don’t want to have to tell a parent their child has been killed by a bear, and that’s what I go home with at night. A healthy bear population is not one with bears sticking their butts out of trash cans.”

New York science and environment writer Rene Ebersole observed bears in the Smokies while reporting this story.

Great Smoky Mountains: The Bear Facts

Great Smoky Mountains National Park harbors roughly two bears per square mile.
A grown man might need the assistance of a hammer to crack a hickory nut, a staple of the black bear diet. Bears crunch them as easily as cereal.
The Smoky Mountains produce a buffet of berries favored by hungry black bears, including huckleberries, serviceberries, wild cherries, blackberries and many different species of blueberry.
An important spring food for bears in the Smokies is protein-rich squaw root. The bears eat it like corn on the cob.
Fall is crunch time for bears. Fattening to endure the winter, they pack on 1 to 3 pounds daily.
Black bear reproduction depends on the quality and quantity of food available and how much weight a female gains. Entire seasons have passed in the Smokies with no cubs born.
Male bears are called boars and females are called sows.
The typical home range of a black bear sow is 3 to 10 square miles. Boars range 25 to 75 square miles.
In the Smokies, black bears den in hollow trees up to 100 feet off the ground. Researchers drop microphones into the dens to determine how many offspring accompany a mother.
When bears leave their dens, chimney swifts are likely to move in.
What To Do If You Encounter Black Bears: Five Simple Rules for Safety

Don’t feed bears—feeding rewards them for approaching people, which can lead to dangerous encounters.
If you see a bear, remain watchful. Do not approach it. If your presence causes the bear to alter its behavior (it stops feeding, changes travel direction, watches you, etc.), you are too close.
Getting too close to a bear may provoke aggressive behavior, such as running toward you, making loud noise or swatting the ground. Slowly back away from the bear, but do not run. The bear can run faster than you, hitting up to 30 miles per hour.
If a black bear persistently follows or approaches you without vocalizing or paw swatting, change your direction. If the bear continues to follow, stand your ground and attempt to intimidate the bear by stomping your feet or throwing rocks or sticks. Do not run, and do not turn away from the bear.
In the rare case that a black bear does attack, fight back: Bite, kick, punch, poke it in the eyes.

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Bears of the World

Research techniques that began with black bears in the Smoky Mountains have been used with all sorts of mammals, including the world’s seven other bear species—Asiatic black bear, spectacled bear, sun bear, sloth bear, polar bear, grizzly and panda. In fact, world-renowned wildlife biologist George B. Schaller visited the Smokies in preparation for his work with pandas in the 1980s. Several University of Tennessee graduate students who had done research on black bears became Schaller’s assistants, helping place the first radio collars on pandas, analyzing radiotelemetry data and becoming major assets to a project that has helped pandas survive the last quarter of a century.

Most North American black bear populations are stable or increasing, but many of the world’s seven other bear species are not faring so well. South America’s spectacled bear is dwindling—as are most declining bear species—because of habitat loss and overhunting. Southeast Asia’s sun bear, a teddylike species roughly half the size of the American black bear, is appearing as a main course on local banquet tables. Asiatic black bears are killed to fill a black market demand for bear parts—gull bladders, feet, meat, paws, spinal chords. India’s sloth bear and North America’s grizzly are persecuted largely out of fear that the animals will kill people. China’s giant panda population has dwindled to fewer than 1,000 bears as humans continue to encroach on panda habitat. And polar bears are finding it harder than ever to hunt the sea ice as global warming heats up their frigid arctic habitats. —Rene Ebersole

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