Yearling male black bears are on the move this month, looking for their own territory, while female bears with young cubs are looking for food, and that search can put the large mammals and humans in dangerous conflict, according to bear advocates and state and federal officials.
Tennessee is home to an estimated 5,000 black bears, and that number is increasing, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Bears emerge hungry in spring and are on the hunt for food for the rest of the season, and easy access to human trash can cause problems between humans and bears.
"In our region, there have not been any notable encounters, thank goodness," TWRA spokeswoman Mime Barnes said Friday in an email. "There have been encounters in East Tennessee where there are higher numbers of bears."
Earlier this month, a mother and her 3-year-old daughter were injured by a bear that tore into their tent at Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and not far away, other sightings were reported and four cubs were rescued, according to The Associated Press.
Park officials said a 350-pound bear was euthanized after likely being attracted to campsite food smells and having previous access to nonnatural foods. It scratched the mother and daughter, causing superficial head lacerations, before the father scared off the bear after several attempts.
Officials investigated and trapped the bear, which showed extreme food-conditioned behavior and didn't fear humans, AP reported.
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 at 770-918-6401 or go to georgiawildlife.com to find information on how to deal with bears and other problem wildlife.
A black bear with several cubs was spotted around the Horse Creek Recreation Area near Greeneville, Tennessee, specifically along the exterior of the campground, the lower day-use area near the main bathhouse and on some of the local trails within the area, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Ashley Miller said in a statement June 18. The bears there have so far not exhibited any signs of aggression towards people, but extreme caution should be taken when visiting the Horse Creek Recreation Area, Miller warned.
Forest Service officials are urging visitors to exercise caution in the area and be on the lookout for black bears and to remember federal orders for the Cherokee National Forest prohibit possessing or leaving food, bear attractant or refuse unless it is possessed properly or stored properly, Miller said.
When humans and bears clash, it's usually the fault of the two-legged species and a lack of attention to picking up things that attract bears — trash, pet food, barbecue grills, bird seed and the like. Officials with the Townsend, Tennessee-based nonprofit Appalachian Bear Rescue and Ellijay, Georgia-based Appalachia Georgia Friends of Bears said people really can do better.
The bears' lives depend on it, and it's possible human lives could be at stake, too, according to Dana Dodd, executive director of the rescue group and Gerald D. Hodge, founder and CEO of the friends group.
Each year, there are accounts of bear encounters where humans live, and many times the bears are seeking an easy meal humans are sometimes ready to provide, they said.
"The bottom line in most of these stories are bears having access to human provided food, whether it is passively or actively provided," Hodge said Thursday in an email. "They get food-conditioned and habituated and then the trouble starts. It reinforces the saying, 'A fed bear is a dead bear.'"
Recent incidents this season offer evidence.
"We are caring for nine little bears right now, and eight of them are cubs that were born this year, and we have one yearling; he was the first bear that we got this year, and he'll being going back into the wild soon," Dodd said Thursday in a phone interview. "These bears bring us to a 26-year total of 356 bears that we have cared for," she said.
State officials and the rescue group — which has facilities to care for cubs and young bears until they can be released — over a 24-hour period in June rescued four female bear cubs born to two different mothers, she said.
"There's tons of reasons that cubs can get orphaned or injured, but the latest four we received this week, three on Monday and one just after midnight," she said of rescues June 20 and 21, "and for all of those four, their path to the rescue went directly through humans' garbage and irresponsible people not securing their trash when they're in bear country."
Appalachian Bear Rescue officials said three of the black bear cubs were rescued after their mother had to be euthanized because she was habituated to human food. The situation left the cubs orphaned.
Dodd said careless property owners in the area of some rental cabins in Sevier County, Tennessee, where there is no bear-safe system to keep the animal out of human trash, persists as a problem site for bears there.
"This trash caused a week of suffering for a little bear, orphaned three more bears and cost the life of a mother bear," Dodd said. "Once a bear is day-active around people, nothing bothers them. This mother bear had started breaking car windows."
A bear cub that got its head freed from a plastic food container June 20 required the assistance of TWRA officer Janelle Musser and watch groups from the rescue who stayed in the area where the little bear was last seen, according to officials.
Black bears in town
As bear and human populations increase and more people move near public lands and bear inhabited areas, bear-human interactions are increasing, creating potentially dangerous situations. To learn more about coexisting with bears, go to the BearWise Website. You can also help prevent safety concerns by following these BearWise basics:
— Never feed or approach bears.
— Do not store food, garbage or other recyclables in areas accessible to bears.
— Do not feed birds or other wildlife where bears are active.
— Feed outdoor pets a portion size they will completely consume during each meal and securely store pet foods.
— Keep grills and smokers clean and stored in a secure area when not in use.
— Talk to family and neighbors when bear activity is occurring in your area.
Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
The bear was first spotted June 13 in the Wears Valley area of Sevier County, and after a week of being stuck, state and Appalachian Bear Rescue officials found the cub June 20, part of the way up a tree. A local business owner brought a ladder that allowed Musser to climb up and put a catch pole around the container, according to rescue officials.
Once there was tension on the container, the cub was able to free its head. Officials then set out and monitored traps to capture the cub they named "Little Trouble," now recovering at the rescue facility, according to officials. That cub and the other three cubs will be kept until they grow large enough to release.
The situation might have been different if humans were involved in keeping bears and humans away from one another, especially in rental or seasonally-occupied properties.
"The next renter comes to that place and they don't know what happened in the last five days," Dodd said. "Their kids walk outside with an ice cream cone in their hands, completely unaware that a bear has had ice cream in that trash and it knows what it's like and it's going to walk around the corner and hurt the person who's holding the ice cream."
Be bearwise on vacation
BearWise offers tips for vacation rentals to help visitors avoid encounters with black bears.
— Enjoy bears from a distance and never approach them.
— Feeding bears (intentionally or unintentionally) trains them to approach homes and people for more food, and you may be ticketed and fined.
— Bears may be defensive when people get too close.
— Secure your food and garbage.
— Clean and store your barbecue grill.
— Keep doors and windows closed.
The situation is completely avoidable, she and Hodge said.
"If humans do not properly secure their trash, bird feeders, wildlife feeders, or clean and secure their grills, they all become attractants," Hodge said, noting recent bear problems in the metro-Atlanta area.
"They are spreading into their historic range," he said. "They follow noses, water and food sources both natural and unnatural. Black bears are opportunistic feeders, and sometimes it gets them into trouble around humans."
Officials said educating humans and getting them to participate is a key to avoiding problems.
"Last year, we spoke to 1,600 humans face-to-face through table events, festivals and speaking to civic organizations," Hodge said. "We drove over 3,000 miles, distributed over 7,000 educational brochures, 4,000 children's place mats, 3,000 door hangers, thousands of 'BearWise' bulletins to key target audiences and reached nearly 30,000 humans through specific targeting in high-risk human-bear conflict neighborhoods."
— 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 that may vary. Healthy mothers produce one to three cubs.