Black bears (Ursus americanus) are one of Tennessee’s states treasures mostly inhabiting Blount, Carter, Cocke, Greene, Jefferson, Johnson, Monroe, Polk, Sevier, Sullivan, Unicoi, and Washington counties along the eastern border of the state. The highest densities of bears reside in the Cherokee National Forest (CNF) and the Great Smokey National Park (GSMNP).
Since the 1970’s, the number of bears has significantly increased in Tennessee. For Example, prior to 1980, the annual harvest in the state was usually less than 20 bears. Today the picture could not be more astounding. Since 2004, Tennessee’s annual bear harvest has exceeded 300 animals! In 2009, a harvest of 571 bears in Tennessee set a new state record.
A key first step to rebuilding Tennessee’s bear population was the establishment of national forests and parks that shelter and protect our sparse bear population. The establishment of the Cherokee National Forest (CNF) and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) in the 1930’s is undeniably the most significant event in the history of bears in Tennessee. Additionally, bear sanctuaries were established and laws against illegal harvests and the hunting of adult females were strictly enforced. In addition to these important management steps, bear populations benefited from the maturation and increased productivity of key oak forest species in protected areas. With careful management and enforcement by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) and ecological conditions in their favor, their populations have responded dramatically.
Tennessee’s bear population thrives today largely due to the dedication of the TWRA, CNF, GSMNP, the bear research program at University of Tennessee and the support of Tennessee sportsman license dollars. Today Tennessee’s wildlife, forest, and park service agencies confront new and difficult challenges in managing bear-human conflicts. As human and bear populations increase, and more people move near public lands, bear-human interactions has undoubtedly increased creating potentially dangerous situations for the public and for bears.
Nationwide bear management experience has clearly shown that bears attracted to human food sources, or that are deliberately fed by humans, have a relatively short life. The survival rate of bears receiving food from people is likely a fraction of that of “wild” bears that do not have repeated contact with humans. The deliberate and accidental feeding of bears is socially irresponsible and causes animals to become conditioned and habituated to people. Bears that habituate to human presence eventually become a threat to human safety. The end result is that such bears are often killed by intolerant and/or fearful landowners or have to be destroyed by the TWRA. The fact that “garbage kills bears” is irrefutable.
The primary corrective action to this management dilemma is to simply restrict the access bears have to human foods. However, state and federal agencies have confronted significant challenges in bringing about even moderate changes to human behavior to achieve greater safety for humans and bears. Tennessee residents and visitors can support bears by taking steps to ensure that wild bears remain “wild”, by carefully managing sources of human food or garbage that might attract bears. The wise stewardship of habitat we share with bears is the joint responsibility of both wildlife managers and the public and will be essential for a viable future for our state treasure, the black bears of Tennessee.