This is the time of year that young black bears across the Chattanooga region look for food, mates, shelter and new territory, while mother bears and cubs are hungry after a winter-long nap.
That means humans' chances of encountering them will be much higher as spring leads into summer.
The best way to deal with bears — the region's largest predator — is to be anything but friendly and eliminate anything that attracts them to your home, campsite or hiking group. And wildlife officials in the region want everyone to remember what to do when humans and bears cross paths.
That usually happens where human and bear territories overlap, like in suburban areas near forests, and where humans enter bear habitat for recreation.
Black bears, particularly females with cubs, have spent the months since Thanksgiving in a state of dormancy, referred to as "torpor," according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. During this period of slumber, bears' normal processes like eating, drinking and other bodily functions are dramatically slowed to allow them to endure the cold.
"As you can imagine, bears are hungry and ready to find food when they leave those dens. This search for food can sometimes put them a little too close to people," said Adam Hammond, state bear biologist in Georgia. There are an estimated 4,100 black bears in Georgia.
Mix that with increased human activity and the chance for encounters is heightened, according to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokeswoman Mime Barnes. Tennessee's black bear population stands at about 4,000, according to 2018 state estimates.
In North Georgia, black bears are most common in the eastern mountainous counties in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but they show up all over the state, and their numbers are increasing. Georgia has an estimated 2,200 black bears.
Black bear numbers in Alabama are far fewer than in Tennessee and Georgia, and historically they have lived mostly in the southwest portion of the state around Mobile. Those bears appear to be a Florida subspecies of black bear, according to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. But in recent years, black bears have steadily moved from Northwest Georgia into Northeast Alabama. These bears, the same ones that can be found in Tennessee and Georgia, are known as the American Black Bear. The two look very similar.
Bears can show up anywhere, as demonstrated in June 2014 when a large male black bear was struck and killed by an SUV on Dayton Boulevard, just two blocks from Red Bank City Hall. The bear weighed 200 to 250 pounds. Another bear was spotted in East Hamilton County in the Apison community in 2017, and another was spied by two hikers heading to Audubon Acres in July 2015, just a mile or so from busy Hamilton Place mall. Bears also have been frequently sighted in most surrounding counties in recent years.
While black bear attacks are exceedingly uncommon, it has happened in the Chattanooga region.
On June 6, 2015, a 16-year-old boy was dragged from his hammock and mauled as he slept at a campsite 4.5 miles from Fontana Lake in North Carolina's portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The boy sustained multiple injuries before his father managed to shoo 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. Based on initial information on the attack, officials at the time said the attack came as the family enjoyed the water pooled at the base of Benton Falls at a popular recreation spot on Chilhowee Mountain. At the bottom of the falls, 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 then dragged off the trail as the people fought off the bear. In the chaos, the 6-year-old girl vanished and was found later by emergency officials with a bear hovering over the little girl's body.
In May 2000, a 50-year-old Cosby, Tenn., schoolteacher became the first person known to die from a bear attack in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to previously published reports.
All the more reason to avoid them and activities that get their attention.
DON’T FEED THE BEARS AND DON’T BE BEAR FOOD
*If you see a bear in your yard, 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
Humans' springtime activities like gardening, hiking and grilling outdoors can be like a beacon to roaming bears, Barnes said, and sometimes people unknowingly put out the welcome mat.
"Attractants include bird feeders, trash, grills and pet food bowls with leftover food," she said.
Greasy grills, ripe vegetables in a garden, trash and bird feeders not only attract bears, but also provide effortless meals, she said, and a bear doesn't forget where its last easy meal came from.
That's where the adage "a fed bear is a dead bear" comes from, as TWRA officials put down dangerous bears that become used to populated areas. Purposely feeding bears is even worse.
"Relocating a conditioned, dangerous bear to another area just moves the problem, and this isn't an option," TWRA Region 3 big game biologist Ben Layton said. "Bears will travel impressive distances to return to an area where they easily found food."
"TWRA's goal is to help people understand their behavior often causes nuisance issues. If we change these behaviors, everyone is safe," Layton said.
Layton and Hammond urge folks to become "bear wise," referring to the nonprofit bear education program, bearwise.org, a website that educates the public and publicizes bear safety measures everyone should follow. The program was developed by bear biologists from each of the 15 state wildlife agencies that make up the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
*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; can span miles
*Attributes: Very agile; climb trees well; 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, and 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.
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 a 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 ENCOUNTERS
Don’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 camp site 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.
If 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.
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.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.