By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
Black bear populations are on the rise in our region—and so are human ones. The intersection of the two living together in ever increasing areas of development is what biologists call the human–bear conflict zone.
Bears are opportunists; they eat what is readily available. Imagine what a temptation the bratwurst and beer in your cooler would become if your sense of smell was magnified one hundred times.
“To get the 20,000 calories a day needed while fattening up before hibernation, a bear would need to eat 672 acorns, 78 pounds of blueberries, nearly 25,000 tent caterpillars or ONE 7-pound birdfeeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds,” writes Linda Masterson in her Living with Bears Handbook, pointing out how much easier it is for bears to survive if we are providing the buffet.
Masterson explains that “if a bear has a positive experience (getting a food reward) without any negative consequences (being yelled at and chased off), it will try for what its enterprising bear-brain thinks might be an even bigger reward.”
It’s easy and even fun to shrug off the occasional bear getting into our garbage or birdfeeder, but Masterson cautions that ignoring the first offense is just leaving us wide open for escalated issues.
What happens to bears that get used to being around people—and start to expect the reward of our human food? One of the ways bear biologists try to address the issue is to relocate the bear. Another option, one they detest but often have to take, is to euthanize the bear. To put it bluntly, either way most are eventually killed.
“Some believe that when bears are moved, they go off to a happy new home,” says Bill Stiver, supervisory biologist in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “In reality, many come back and create conflict; and even more die on roads trying to get back to familiar territory.”
So, no matter what happens, “where bears and humans converge, bears nearly always lose,” writes science and nature journalist David Brill in “Point of Conflict,” an article in Smokies Life magazine. “The most troubling reality of the killing of bears involved in conflict is that the actions that led to the tragic outcome nearly always can be ascribed to the behavior of humans, not bears.”
If we love seeing our black bears healthy, value their wild nature, and do not want to see them die, it’s time for us to get back to these six BearWise Basics:
Never feed or approach bears. Intentionally feeding bears or allowing them to find anything that smells or tastes like food teaches bears to approach homes and people looking for more. Bears will defend themselves if a person gets too close, so don’t risk your safety and theirs!
Secure food, garbage and recycling. Food and food odors attract bears, so don’t reward them with easily available food, liquids or garbage.
Remove bird feeders when bears are active. Birdseed and grains have lots of calories, so they’re very attractive to bears. Removing feeders is the best way to avoid creating conflicts with bears.
Never leave pet food outdoors. Feed pets indoors when possible. If you must feed pets outside, feed in single portions and remove food and bowls after feeding. Store pet food where bears can’t see or smell it.
Clean and store grills. Clean grills after each use and make sure that all grease, fat and food particles are removed. Store clean grills and smokers in a secure area that keeps bears out.
Alert neighbors to bear activity. See bears in the area or evidence of bear activity? Tell your neighbors and share info on how to avoid bear conflicts. Bears have adapted to living near people; now it’s up to us to adapt to living near bears.
In Part 3, we’ll learn about a group that is on a mission to help communities around the Smokies learn the importance of the BearWise Basics.
Resources for learning more: