THE BEAR FACTS
• Adult black bears are 5 to 6 feet long and weigh 200 to 600 pounds.
• Females give birth to two or three blind, helpless cubs in midwinter and nurse them in the den until spring, when all emerge in search of food.
• The cubs stay with their very protective mother for about two years.
• Black bears can live about 20 years and are North America's most familiar and common bears.
• They typically live in forests and are excellent tree climbers, but they are also found in mountains and swamps.
• Despite their name, black bears can be blue-gray or blue-black, brown, cinnamon or white.
Source: National Geographic
Black bears, once seen in the Southeast only during a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains, are making a comeback.
From Little River Canyon in Alabama to Cloudland Canyon in Georgia and along the Cumberland Plateau in Southeast Tennessee, bear sightings are becoming more common - sometimes in backyards.
"They are coming back. It's a great thing," said Little River Canyon National Preserve Ranger Larry Beane, noting that rangers on the preserve estimate there now are 12 to 20 bears on Lookout Mountain's southern sweep.
But "great" has a caveat.
The bears need to stay wild and not learn to associate people with food, experts say.
So in Alabama's Little River region, about 70 miles southwest of downtown Chattanooga, rangers intent on preserving the few bears there are embarking on a massive public education campaign.
"Confrontations with black bears are very rare. Most incidents are the direct result of people approaching the bear for photographs, surprising the bear or feeding the bear," Beane said. "Never approach, feed or follow wild animals, especially bears."
In Southeast Tennessee, bear ranges have expanded out of the mountains on the state's far eastern border and west into more populated areas of Bradley County and the Cumberland Plateau. The bear population has increased so dramatically that wildlife managers are surveying the public's bear tolerance and contemplating increased bear hunts. Bear hunts that netted 20 animals in the 1970s are now tallying nearly 600.
And memories are still fresh of a 2006 bear attack in Polk County that left a child dead and her mother and brother injured.
"Bear fatalities [of humans] are very rare. There have only been three east of the Mississippi in the past 100 years. Unfortunately, two of those three were in Tennessee," said Daryl Ratajczak, chief of wildlife and forestry for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Six-year-old Elora Petrosek was killed by a black bear during a Chilhowee Mountain trail walk in the Cherokee National Forest with her mother and brother. Susan Cenkus, 45, of Clyde, Ohio, and her son Luke Cenkus, 2, were mauled in the attack.
Ratajczak said rangers believe the attacking bear mistook the smallest child, who was attacked first, for a small animal.
In May 2000, 50-year-old Glenda Ann Bradley was killed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by two female black bears. The third bear death east of the Mississippi was in New York, Ratajczak said.
Despite the tragedies, wildlife officials insist black bears - the only bears found in the eastern U.S. - are shy and normally not a threat to humans.
But problems often arise when people unthinkingly teach bears bad habits.
When bears begin to associate humans with food or lose their fear of humans, the likelihood of bear-human interactions that end badly dramatically increases, Beane and Ratajczak said.
Bad interactions include garbage-can diving, injured pets and wrecked gardens or bird feeders.
And sometimes it's not the bears who are trespassers. Some new forest residents are actually homeowners in developments that have edged into what was once bear domain.
TWRA has been called in the past year to new subdivisions in Bradley County when people see a bear, said Dan Hicks, a wildlife officer and spokeswoman for TWRA, and he said he expects more calls in coming months.
"This is the time of year when we get more complaints," he said.
Although black bears in this region don't hibernate in the strict comatose sense of the word, they do den and sleep for long periods. When they emerge this time of year, they're hungry.
Beane said rangers in other parks have seen visitors tossing potato chips from their cars to bears, or getting out of their cars to take photographs of the wild animals.
Residential and campground problems also can arise when residents leave pet food bowls out or when campers toss uneaten food scraps in the woods.
"We'd like to prevent things like that from happening," Beane said. "We [humans] have a better learning curve than bears do."
Hunts vs. Education
Bear hunting is illegal in Alabama, but in Tennessee TWRA has been "managing" bear numbers with hunts since 1973. The hunt "harvests," as TWRA calls them, can keep bear ranges intact and provide a way to monitor the rise and fall of the animal's populations.
In April or May, to help TWRA officials decide whether the agency will increase hunts or allow the bear ranges to expand, wildlife officers will examine the results of a telephone survey with 1,300 Tennesseans.
The survey, conducted by the University of Tennessee, was made in three specific areas where bears already live near people, where bears are moving near people and where bears have never lived near people.
The surveyors asked a number of questions about bears, including:
• Do you enjoy seeing bears?
• Do you want to see bears in your county?
• Do you want to see bears in your backyard?
Ratajczak said he believes the public has an unnecessary fear of bears, so he expects the majority of Tennesseans want to see the bear population grow - but not necessarily nearby.
"Bears are vastly different from deer or turkey. If I told you I saw a turkey in your yard yesterday, you'd smile and think that was cool," he said. "However, if I say there was a bear in your backyard, you might give me a completely different reaction."
Ratajczak and Beane said bears are nothing to fear - as long as you act properly around them.
"If people keep feeding their dogs out in the edge of the woods with pans of food that sit there two days, and they put their garbage out in open cans or go camping and throw all their food in the edge of the woods, the bears will find that and say, 'Hey, this is a good place to eat. I'm coming back,'" Beane said.
If those temptations are absent, Beane said, the bears won't be attracted to things that will cause them harm.
"If they stay in the woods and eat nuts and berries and grubs and whatever they dig up and find, they'll live a happy little life here.
"And we'll see them occasionally," he said.