Bear Human Conflict

Living with the Black Bears.....

By nature, wild bears prefer solitude within the wilderness, it's the natural way and safer for both bear and humans alike. In the 21st century the presence of the Black Bear is less apparent than it was 30 to 40 years ago. Before the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there were only 200 Black Bears inhabiting the national park region, due to logging and over hunting. The creation of the national park allowed the wild bears an opportunity to live a more natural existence in their wilderness homelands.

Today the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts a population of over 1,500 wild Black Bears living within the national park. This increased number is due to proper wildlife planning and greater garbage control. No longer are the majority of Black Bears rooting through garbage cans and pursuing handouts, though a small minority near the outer fringes of the parklands and national forest are still having a hard time breaking their habitual nature.

Black Bears who find themselves in the close proximity of civilization subject themselves to greater harm from unhealthy food sources, irate or startled humans, poachers and vehicle homicide. For this reason the Black Bear population is back on the decline and it is the sole responsibility of both the wildlife resource agencies and the general public who live and visit these wilderness regions to practice bear safety in order to maintain a proper relationship between both Black Bears and Humans.

The Blue Ridge Highlander has compiled information concerning Bear/Human Conflict for the feature along with a list of Bear Safety practices that we have compiled from information created by the Appalachian Bear Rescue in conjunction with the World Society for the Protections of Animals and the information gathered from the Southern Appalachian Natural Resource Agencies concerning Black Bear safety.

What Contributes to Bear and Human Conflict

Bears become habituated to human food sources if they find it often enough. Habituated bears lose their wildness and become a threat to people, property and themselves.

The present thriving population is a result of the sound management of bears and the bear habitat. State and federal agencies have developed bear-proof lids and several bear-proof dumpsters. Regulations prohibiting the feeding of bears are strictly enforced within the national forest, national and state parks.

In spite of protection, bears are dying unnecessarily due to the improper disposal of garbage in campgrounds, picnic areas, residential neighborhoods, businesses and dumpsites.

The presence of humans will keep most Black Bears away at first (wild bears are naturally afraid of humans and the human scent) ultimately the temptation created by food and other human related products will draw bears in, most often at night. Night active bears begin a pattern of behavior that usually ends with their death. Losing their fear of humans they begin to associate human scent with the reward of food.

Bears that become day-active in developed areas put themselves in even greater danger. They could be killed by a car, digest toxic material from garbage and/or risk being trapped and relocated if they become troublesome.

Bear's that habituate to humans and human related food are a chronic problem, especially in heavily used recreation areas. Habitual bears cause property damage and have injured dozens of visitors. Yet the biggest victims of the conflict between bears and humans have been the bears themselves.

Rangers once carried shotguns loaded with birdshot to frighten habituated bears without causing permanent injury. Recent management practices have included trapping and relocation. Biologists, capture bears in culvert-style traps before transporting them from the developed area back into the wilderness.

Some bears readapt to the wild while other habitual bears use their amazing sense of smell and homing ability to return to the developed area they knew so well, risking a variety of dangers. Often, the relocated Black Bears face conflict with the resident bears in their new environment. According to wildlife agencies, relocation is a last resort for rehabilitating a habitual Black Bear.

In recent years, wildlife agencies have adopted more innovative bear management strategies that emphasize problem prevention rather than relocation. Public education and cooperation are essential priorities in these programs. More attention is given to keeping picnic areas and campgrounds completely free of food scraps and garbage, especially at night. As a last resort, day-active bears are trapped and released nearby, rather than relocated.

So far the new efforts appear to be successful when the technique is utilized consistently. The number of bears requiring relocation or euthanasia has been decreased significantly.

Many Bear/Human conflict problems can be resolved through simple actions such as removing easily accessible birdfeeders; avoid leaving pet food outdoors, and store garbage in an area inaccessible to bears. When camping or hiking, store food items in a vehicle or hoist food packs into the air away from the trunks of trees. It may take several days for a nuisance bear to learn there's no longer a free meal available, but it will learn and move along.

Left alone, young bears searching for territory will usually find their way back to more traditional range deep in the mountain forest where they find safety from humans and where humans are safe from startled bears. There are very few bear attacks on record though reports of mauling and mortalities are a reality, that is why Bear Safety education is important for all of us enjoying the mountains.

Black Bear Safety

1. Standing bears are not preparing to charge, they're trying to identify scents and sight. Charging bears remain on all fours with the heads down and perform a series of mock attacks before usually running off in order to put distance between both parties.

2. Bears sense of smell is greater than our K9 friends; they will likely know you're around before you see them, making the bear more elusive if they get the chance.

3. If you see a bear, don't run to a tree, Black Bears are as much at home in a tree as they are on the ground. First stand still then slowly back away while facing the bear, increasing your distance moderately. Do not run or panic, panicking scares the bear more than the bear scares you. When hiking, making a moderate amount of noise will let a bear know how close you are to them. Bears are naturally afraid of humans and prefer to be left alone. Normally they are eating, traveling, hanging around or resting. Bears are territorial and protective of their food source and young cubs. They will often demonstrate a false charge or verbal groans telling you to move on. Don't think you can sneak in on a mother bear or her cub for a rare photo; mother bears will become aggressive like any good mother would when their cubs are involved.

4. The chances of seeing a bear in the wild is less than likely due to proper trash containers in the national parks, national forest and state parks. Seeing a black bear in the wild is privilege you must respect and a safety concern for both the bear and human.

5. Black bears can run up to 30-miles an hour coming out of a dead stop, they have four legs you only have two.

6. Bears like all species of animal and human kind want food. Food odors attract bears, so don't be careless by leaving out food to draw bears into plain sight, an action that is just cruel and damaging to the bears, plus it's illegal. Food baiting can lead to injury both to bears and/or humans and possible destruction of property.

7. At home or when staying in a vacation rental property, leave garbage stored indoors or in bear resistant garbage cans. Take your garbage to the dump often for your sake and the bears. Don't leave pet food outside, and when barbecuing, do not leave the grill unattended, also clean food residue off of the grates in the grill. Bears are not only attracted to bird feeders, they are attracted to compost piles if you dispose fruits or other heavy scented items in them, so it is better to have proper compost containers.

8. When hiking, be aware of bear signs, overturned rocks, berry patches and nut-bearing trees. Large rotted log, rock overhangs and shallow caves can be possible dens. Bears are normally quiet and may be close by; unlike most humans, they don't make a lot of noise unless confronted.

7. When camping, be aware of your surroundings, wild berries and nut producing trees and natural beehives attract bears. Keep all food hung in a tree away from tree trunks and away from your tents and gear. Food smells from cook fires can leave odors on your belongings attracting a bear's curiosity. Any gear or utensils not stored in a tent should also be hung up or stored in a nearby vehicle. Also sleep in your tent, camper, trailer or RV and do not sleep under the stars. If you wake up startled by a furry one's curiosity, your awakening will startle the bear as well. Plus the dewfall in these semi-rainforest mountains makes for a very uncomfortable nights sleep under the stars.

8. Black bears are beautiful creatures and not pets. If they seem friendly, they're just looking for a handout...tactfully and gently let them know they're not welcome. From a safe distance, inoffensively raise your arms over your head and wave them, and make some noise. Being too aggressive might intimidate some bears so exercise caution. If you just stand still with your arms over your head, the bear might think it's some kind of a stick up and move in for the bounty.

9. Bear pictures and bear-related stories are fun and enjoyable to experience...bear confrontations are not and are potentially dangerous to all parties involved.

Cabins, Rental Properties or Residential Homes

1. Use bear proof bird feeders that are out of reach of bears with spill pans to prevent seeds from reaching the ground.

2. Bear-proof beehives, compost piles and gardens with electric or chain-link fence.

3. Don not leave food as bait for any animals or leave food scraps on the ground.

4. If a bear approaches, move your family and any food indoors immediately, wild bears may be cute but I assure you their not cuddly.


1. Hang food and anything with strong odors (toothpaste, bug repellent, soap, etc.) at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from a limb, or use special food storage boxes and cable systems when available.

2. If a bear approaches, frighten it by yelling, banging pans together, or throwing rocks, do not charge the bear.

3. Do respect and admire them from a distance, this is their home you just a tolerated guest to them.

4. Pack trash out, don't bury it, bears will find it and dig it up.

Campgrounds and Picnic Areas

1. Keep a clean site by properly disposing of:
bearsAll garbage, including fruit rinds and cores.
bearsAluminum foil (even from grills) that has been used to cook or store food.
bearsPlastic wrap and bags that have been used to store food.
bearsCans and jars that are empty.

2. Pick up food scraps around your site and any charred food scraps left in campfires.

3. Never leave food or coolers unattended (unless they are inside a vehicle or hard-sided camper.)

4. Wipe down tabletops before vacating your site, porous wood on picnic tables retain orders and flavor.

5. If a bear approaches your site, pack up your food and trash immediately. If the bear is persistent, move away slowly to your vehicle or another secure area.

Anytime you See a Bear

1. Do not feed or toss food to a bear or any wild animal.

2. Keep children close at hand.

3. Keep pets indoors or in a vehicle or camper, for K9 safety keep your pet on a lease, dogs will confront bears and may get serious injuries due to the bear's strength, long claws and sharp teeth.

4. Do not approach a bear at anytime they are dangerous and unpredictable. If a bear changes its natural behavior (feeding, foraging, or movement) because of your presence, you are too close and the bear is going to respond.

5. Never surround or corner a bear.

6. Never run from a bear, slowly back away and make lots of noise, bears understand oral confrontation and will often use their own oral abilities to voice their disapproval.

7. Encourage others to follow all safety instructions when they are in your presence.

8. Be responsible. Improper behavior on your part may cause the bear to die or a human to be seriously injured.

9. In the extreme case that you are attacked by a black bear, try to fight back by using any object available. Act aggressively and intimidate the bear by yelling and waving your arms. Playing dead is not appropriate.

For more information concerning Bear Safety and Bear/Human Conflict contact local Wildlife Agencies or talk to the local Forest Service and National and State Park Rangers.

the Highlander

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