The human-bear conflict will always be a concern in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This article recently published on National Parks Traveler—a nonprofit media organization dedicated to covering national parks and protected areas—is shared here to emphasize the importance of BearWise awareness.
|Black bear populations are on the rise throughout their range. The BearWise program is designed to keep bears and people safe./Thomas Fuhrmann|
By Kim O'Connell, National Parks Traveler
“Bear jam,” my driver said. It was early on an overcast October morning in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Before sunrise, dozens of cars had lined up on the road to Cades Cove, a verdant basin in the park dotted with old homesteads and churches. Once the park ranger opened the entrance gate, cars began moving slowly and steadily around the 11-mile road that loops through the Cove. I was a passenger, riding with three others, when we came around a curve and slammed on the brakes, along with several others idling in the middle of the road.
“Yup, this has to be a bear jam,” my driver repeated. Sure enough, as traffic gradually inched forward, we spotted a large black bear about 15 yards off the roadway, munching on vegetation and generally minding its own business. We kept our distance and zoomed in with our camera phones to take photos. But we saw several people walk within a few yards of the bear to get a better shot, creating a situation that could potentially be dangerous for both the people and the bear.
Later, when I relayed this story in a meeting with Bill Stiver, longtime wildlife biologist at the park, and Laurel Rematore, chief executive officer of the Great Smoky Mountains Association, the park’s nonprofit cooperating association, they were not surprised. For the most visited national park in the United States, and one with a growing population of black bears (the current estimate is roughly 1,900, more than triple the number 30 years ago) and bustling gateway towns like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, human-bear interactions are inevitable. Stiver and Rematore are both partners in the growing BearWise™ program, designed to lessen these kinds of interactions and make them safer.