Story by Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
Today’s human–bear conflict zone is made even more complicated by our ability to instantly share information digitally to huge numbers of people with the click of a few buttons on our smart phones or laptop keyboards.
“In the last few years, we have been alarmed at the number of social media posts, such as Facebook and YouTube, which make light of black bears getting into bird feeders, garbage, or other foods left unsecured for bears to access,” says Colleen Olfenbuttel, black bear and furbearer biologist with North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “While bears are charismatic and fascinating to observe, these unsecured attractants result in bears becoming less wary and wild—and more habituated to and bold around people.”
Some social media users and sites make it a practice to post images and videos of bears getting into trouble in neighborhoods—like jumping into a dumpster, opening a car door or getting into someone’s refrigerator. These posts are usually framed to elicit laughter and humor.
“While it is always exciting to see wildlife and can appear comical to see black bears getting into cars or trash, we have to remember that these smart and long-lived animals are learning and often teaching their young habits that will put their lives and people’s property at risk,” says Jeff Hunter, senior program manager with National Parks Conservation Association.
NPCA is one of several organizations supporting the Smoky Mountain BearWise Community Taskforce, a group on a mission to encourage positive behaviors that will minimize the potential for human–bear conflicts in the Smokies and its gateway communities. Another is Great Smoky Mountains Association, headed up by CEO Laurel Rematore who traded black bears in Yosemite for those in the Smokies to take her job in 2016.
“While at first blush those social media posts may be entertaining, the fact that the bear got access to human food is practically signing a death sentence for that bear,” she says. “And who can blame them? I know once I’ve had a taste of French fries or potato chips, I want more too.”
There are plenty of natural food sources around our region to sustain healthy black bear populations. But when we tempt bears by making human food available, and then post evidence of their bad behavior, we glamorize and promote some of the most undesirable behaviors of black bears.
“This is extremely unsafe for both bears and people,” says Olfenbuttel. “For example, we are seeing increases in bears trying to get into occupied homes in the area. If people really cared about bears, they would change their behavior by being BearWise and securing their attractants.”
Supervisory wildlife biologist with Great Smoky Mountains National Park Bill Stiver agrees. “These behaviors are irreversible and often continue to escalate. Often, wildlife managers have no choice but to euthanize bears that pose a threat to people and their property.”
This is why it is so vital to follow the BearWise Basics. To encourage communities and businesses to be BearWise, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission offers a speaker’s bureau that helps neighborhoods and educational groups learn more about how to be better stewards of our black bear populations.
Rematore believes humans can effect change for bears if we just use our heads. “We have the opportunity to turn this around using social media,” she says. “What if our feeds were flooded with videos of bears and other wildlife foraging in the wild, undisturbed by humans?”
To keep bears wild, maintain 50 yards’ distance and do not leave your food accessible to them. When one person in the neighborhood feeds bears or allows food to allure them, that causes issues for everyone else in the area—and ultimately threatens the bears’ very existence.
“A wild bear is a magnificent sight to see,” says Rematore. “We can ensure that the videos people share are of wild bears, not those at needless risk, if we humans will only behave responsibly.”
Know and follow the BearWise Basics:
Resources for learning more: