Tennessee, Georgia wildlife officials warn of spring black bears on the move

Contributed photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / American black bears are shown in an undated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

A 500-pound male black bear relocated in March from the neighborhood of a Northeast Tennessee university campus is a striking reminder of why humans should be vigilant this spring when bears rising from their winter slumber are on the move looking for food.

Items like loosely-contained garbage, barbecue grills, pet food and bird feeders amount to ringing the dinner bell for unwanted predators, according to officials with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and others.

TWRA spokesperson Mime Barnes said while the relocation of the big male bear in the northeast corner of the state attracted a lot of attention, the action itself stemmed from worries about human-bear interactions because of the animal's contact with human food sources.

Intentionally and unintentionally feeding bears can lead to serious problems for bears and humans, Barnes said Monday in a telephone interview. Black bears are the region's largest predator.

DON'T FEED THE BEARS

- If you see a bear in your yard, try to look large and make a lot of noise, back slowly away. - Never approach or follow a bear to take photos. - Do not purposefully feed bears. - Remove all attractants from your yard including bird feeders, uneaten pet food and ripe fruits or garden vegetables. - Store grills in a garage or outbuilding. - Store trash and recycling in bear-proof containers. - Do not feed birds between April and January, when bears are most active. - Remove uneaten pet food from outside areas or feed pets indoors. - Do not add greasy foods to your compost piles or compost in bear-proof containers. - Keep cooking grills clean and stored indoors when not in use. Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

So far this year there have been no major problems between humans and bears, "but May and June are just around the corner," Barnes said.

Black bears, particularly females with cubs, have been in a state of dormancy since Thanksgiving, referred to as "torpor," according to officials. During that period of slumber, bears' normal processes like eating, drinking and other bodily functions slow dramatically to allow them to endure the cold months.

Bears wake up hungry.

(READ MORE: Black bears spreading across North Alabama)

photo Photo contributed by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency / A 500-pound black bear living near Tusculum University in Greeneville, Tenn., was relocated to a remote area of the Cherokee National Forest on Wednesday after Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials said it had become habituated to human food. Greeneville firefighters helped move the bear.

The big bruin relocated this month had been living near Tusculum University in Greeneville in recent years and had "become habituated to human and unnatural foods," according to the TWRA.

According to TWRA Sgt. David Carpenter, the bear had regular access to garbage, birdseed and pet food and had been in the area for a few years but its activity and property damage increased last year.

Agency officers decided to trap it due to the increasing potential for negative interactions, but struck out after the bear changed its travel routine, Carpenter said this month in a statement on the 500-pounder.

The bear's recent activity indicated it was back to its old habits, and Carpenter and officers Ryan Rosier and Austin Wilson located the bear in a small, vacant wooded lot and tranquilized it, officials said. Because of its size and weight, the Greeneville Fire Department provided muscle and equipment to relocate the bear.

While Tennessee's bears are just getting out and about, Georgia's bears live in slightly warmer southern climes, according to Gerald D. Hodge, founder and CEO of the non-profit Appalachia Georgia Friends of the Bears based in Ellijay, Georgia.

"We already have received reports of adult males and sub-adults that are out and about," Hodge said in an email on bear activity. "Second to emerge will be the solitary females and sows with yearlings in late-March, mid-April. Finally, are the sows with cubs of the year in mid-April to early May."

TIPS FOR HIKERS IN BEAR COUNTRY

— Stay on established trails.— Hike in groups during daylight hours only.— Keep children close and in sight at all times.— Make your presence known — call out.— Bears may be more aggressive during droughts, storms and forest fires.— Avoid carcasses. Report dead animals near a trail or campsite to local wildlife officials.— If an animal approaches, back away to maintain a safe distance.— Taking pets on hiking trails is not advised — they may attract bears or cougars.SUDDEN CLOSE ENCOUNTERSDon’t panic! Calmly group together and pick up small children. Do not run, make sudden movements or direct aggressive eye contact, which may instinctively cause the bear to charge.If the black bear clacks its teeth, “woofs,” pants, growls or slaps its paws on the ground, it is warning you to back off.Give the bear a chance to identify you as a human, and not a threat. Let the bear calm down and retreat. Talk firmly in a low-pitched voice while backing away.A bear that continues to follow or circle you, disappears and reappears or enters your campsite during the day or night is possibly exhibiting predatory behavior. If the bear continues to approach or becomes threatening, your group should become increasingly aggressive by shouting, throwing rocks or using bear spray.BEAR ATTACKIf a black bear attacks you, fight back by hitting its nose and eyes with your fists and by kicking. Your hiking companions can help you fight with walking sticks, pans, branches and rocks or their bear spray. Don’t play dead with black bears.Source: www.bebearaware.org

Hodge echoed Barnes' mantra of keeping attractants under control for the bears' sake.

"Humans are not securing their trash, and the bears are getting into it," he said Monday in a follow-up email.

To help get the word out, "We launched a Facebook-targeted ad campaign for the center and east side of Appalachia Georgia last night," he said.

Georgia's Department of Natural Resources reports 1,000-1,800 bear-human conflicts each year, and officials spend up to 1,400 hours annually addressing those contacts, Hodge said.

"Two-thirds of all human-bear conflicts are related to improperly stored trash," he said. "A screened-in porch is not a secure location for trash, recyclables, pet food, bird feed."

REPORT BEAR SIGHTINGS AND PROBLEMS

Tennessee: If bears present safety or property problems call the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in Southeast Tennessee at 800-262-6704 or in upper East Tennessee at 800-332-0900 or visit tn.gov/twra to find more information.Georgia: Call the Georgia Department of Natural Resources 770-918-6401 or go to georgiawildlife.com to find information on how to deal with bears and other problem wildlife.Alabama: Go to alabamablackbearalliance.org/bear-report or call 800-822-9453 to report a bear sighting.

Hodge and Barnes said people can take steps to keep wildlife officials from having to move or euthanize bears.

Barnes said no one should misunderstand the difficulty in relocating animals because not only is the animal stressed in the move from its familiar territory to a new one, it also can increase pressure on other bears in its new home. Permission must be garnered from federal and state land managers to allow a new bear in because of its impact, she said.

"Relocation is not the answer," Hodge said, pointing to a 1989-1993 study in Yosemite National Park that showed 80% of efforts to relocate 124 bears there failed.

"The bad human behavior must be changed to reduce the bad bear behavior," he said.

(READ MORE: Tennessee is full of animals that can kill you. Here's a guide to staying alive)

Homeowners aren't the only neighbors of bears with choices to make, according to Barnes.

"Businesses can do their part by keeping dumpsters locked," she said. "It's a bad day for a person to work in wildlife to put down an animal because humans choose to keep up bad practices."

Bear and human encounters can end badly and the furry omnivores can turn up anywhere, as in June 2020 when an Athens, Tennessee, police officer snapped a photo of a small bear galloping through town.

In September 2020 a young black bear was euthanized after running around downtown Chattanooga, and in 2014, a large male black bear was struck and killed by an SUV on Dayton Boulevard, just two blocks from Red Bank City Hall.

Attacks are uncommon but they have happened in the region before.

On June 6, 2015, a 16-year-old boy was dragged from his hammock and mauled as he slept at a campsite in North Carolina's portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He sustained multiple injuries before his father managed to drive the bear away.

On April 13, 2006, a 6-year-old Ohio girl was killed, and her mother and 2-year-old brother were injured in a black bear attack on Chilhowee Mountain in Polk County, Tennessee. A large bear that might have been stalking the family burst from the woods and grabbed the little boy by the head while the mother and others tried to fend the bear off. The mother was eventually dragged off the trail and in the chaos, the 6-year-old girl vanished. She was found later with the bear hovering over her body.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

BEAR FACTS

— Black bears can be found across most of North America. Black bear habitat varies from the lowlands of Florida to the mountains, deserts and subarctic tundra. Black bears can be found in and adjacent to metropolitan areas.— Colors: Black, brown, blond, rust or cinnamon. Rare colors are white and blue.— Size: Adults measure about 3 feet at the shoulder and 5 to 6 feet when standing.— Weight: Adults weigh 125-425 pounds or more. Some Tennessee bears can weigh as much as 500 pounds.— Life span: Approximately 20 years.— Eyesight: Similar to humans.— Sense of smell: Excellent; miles of range.— Attributes: Very agile; climb trees well; are good swimmers; and can run as fast as 35 mph.— A black bear’s diet can include acorns, berries, insects, vegetation, fish and other live prey as well as carrion. They mate during May and early June. They hibernate between November and April when food is scarce, though this may vary. Healthy mothers produce one to three cubs.Source: www.bebearaware.org