Studies Offer Insights into Behaviors of Park Bears

Studies Offer Insights into Behaviors of Park Bears

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 fulfilment 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:

  • 26 of the 28 male bears studied had home ranges that included areas outside the park
  • 13 of the 23 females studied had home ranges that included areas outside the park
  • More than 40 percent of park bears have recently eaten a significant amount of garbage or other human-related foods
  • Bears forage in a much larger area outside the park boundary than just the portion of Gatlinburg that has installed bear-proof trash cans as a result of the city’s bear ordinance

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.

Bear Map

What happens to relocated bears?

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:

  • Four were killed by hunters
  • Two were killed by vehicles
  • One returned to the park and ripped into a camper’s tent, which meant park staff were forced to euthanize the bear
  • One remains unaccounted for and presumed shot by hunters

The researchers hope to obtain funding to expand the study.

Survival rates of rescue bears

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

How many bears are there?

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.

WBIR news

Click on the WBIR news link image to watch a video that looks closely at bear management in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

SPECIAL NOTE: This story, along with a dozen others, originated in our Bearpaw newsletter, printed publication exclusively designed with our members in mind. Click HERE to become a member and receive the complete Bearpaw each summer and fall

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