By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
As a resident of Gatlinburg’s Chalet Village, SJ Geis encounters a lot of tourists and a lot of bears during the high season in the Smokies. She says that most of the vacationers have never lived in bear country and are completely “clueless and unsuspecting” about bear behavior.
“I often spend time walking and talking BearWise Basics up and down my road to help educate and protect the people and the bears,” she says. “It may just be a friendly reminder to lock your car, your cabin, and your trash, but if it helps just one bear and one person, it was time well spent.”
Geis says she has always been an advocate for wildlife and their ecosystems. “It must stem from my days of growing up listening to a very wise bear named Smokey saying, ‘If Not You, Who?’ I believe stewardship and education are critical components to preserve and protect our greatest natural resources.”
That’s why Geis is a founding member and spokesperson for the Smoky Mountain BearWise Community Taskforce, a small group of regional business leaders and engaged citizens who are on a mission to minimize the potential for human–bear conflicts in the Smokies’ gateway communities.
Jan Brady, owner at Whole Earth Grocery, also joined the taskforce when it formed in late 2019. “It's an honor to live in bear country,” she says. “As a resident and business owner in Gatlinburg, I have an opportunity to share what I have learned through the taskforce with a wide variety of tourists as well as my community. Education is key to ensuring a safe human–bear connection.”
In late May of 2020, the Smoky Mountain BearWise Community Taskforce held a media event promoting its desire for all communities surrounding the park to embrace formal proactive bear management programs that limit bears’ access to human food sources. The taskforce believes this can be accomplished through BearWise community programs as well as local ordinances, regulations, and policies that address the intentional and unintentional feeding of black bears.
“These bears are leaving protected lands, filled with natural food sources, to score easy pickings with unsecured trash,” says Jeff Hunter, senior program manager with National Parks Conservation Association and the taskforce’s facilitator. “Sustainable co-existence with black bears means that they can’t access our trash as a food source. Once we correct that issue, things get better fast.”
Along with NPCA, Great Smoky Mountains Association is closely supporting the taskforce. Bear management specialists from both the National Park Service and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency work with the group in an advisory capacity. Other nonprofits, businesses and communities represented include Gatlinburg Brewing Company, Cobbly Nob Rentals and Cabins, Appalachian Bear Rescue, Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, and Nantahala Outdoor Center.
As the general manager of Nantahala Outdoor Center–Gatlinburg, Bill Morrissey sees firsthand the importance of the bears as a great attraction for visitors. “I always knew there were consequences to human–bear interactions, but wanted to learn more and be more fact-based,” he says. “Working for NOC, where we guide visitors on how to enjoy the outdoors, I felt the taskforce was a perfect match and I would be able to help impact thousands with information and education on how to enjoy these bears for many years to come.”
Like Morrissey, Arrowmont’s executive director, Jim Scarsella, is new to the area and wanted to become more active in community concerns.
“Having a home in the mountains and working here has given me a firsthand look at the issues our community has with bears,” he says. “Being a member of the BearWise taskforce has provided me the opportunity to give back to the community and help educate our residents and guests on how to become better stewards of these beautiful animals."
In just a few months, the taskforce has already begun to foster partnerships to increase education about human behavior’s negative effects on black bear behavior and to promote BearWise safety for residents of gateway communities.
The taskforce believes that, since bears are extremely adaptable and have adjusted well to urbanization around Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is critical that communities and their leadership recognize the importance of coexisting with bears in a manner that reduces human–bear conflicts—ultimately resulting in a safer environment for residents, visitors and bears.
In Part 4, we will learn how some human behaviors on social media affect the human–bear conflict zone.
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