By Steve Kemp
Four research projects focused on bears in the Great Smoky Mountains are currently underway or have recently been completed. Of the four, the results of two are troubling, one is encouraging, and on the last it’s too early to tell.
Jessica Braunstein has just finished a three-year study in fulfillment of her master’s degree thesis from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Braunstein and park wildlife staff captured and fitted 53 park bears with Global Positioning System collars to learn more about the bears’ movements and home ranges. They also collected hair samples to ascertain whether the bears were eating wild foods from the woods or garbage and other human-related foods.
Much of what Braunstein learned was eye opening and will have long-term implications for park wildlife management:
NPS management implications for this study point to the need for further cooperation between the park and neighboring communities in controlling garbage and other food sources.
A pilot study launched last year by the park service in cooperation with UT hopes to determine the fate of habituated bears that wildlife staff are forced to relocate outside the park. Habituated bears have lost their natural fear of humans because people fail to secure their garbage, food and pet food or they simply approach bears too closely for photographs. Because of this loss of fear, and through no fault of their own, habituated bears pose a serious threat to human safety.
The pilot study used GPS collars to track eight bears relocated to public lands outside the park for one year. Of these eight:
The researchers hope to obtain funding to expand the study.
A study conducted by Coy Blair of the Appalachian Bear Rescue (ABR) organization and UT assessed the survival rates of young, orphaned bears rehabilitated by ABR and released into the wild. Blair’s research revealed that well over 80 percent of the young bears survived their first year in the wild, validating the great work of this nonprofit. Learn more at appalachianbearrescue.org.
UT research associate Jacob Humm has started an ambitious study to use black bear hair samples to estimate the bear population in the Southeast. There hasn’t been an extensive bear population analysis for the region in many years. Park officials currently estimate that 1,600 bears live in the Smokies.
Click on the WBIR news link image to watch a video that looks closely at bear management in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
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