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Wednesday, 13 September 2006 00:00

Close encounters: Wild food shortage and population increase could lead to bear run-ins

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Managers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are bracing for a higher-than-normal level of bear activity this fall and are warning Park visitors and neighbors to be especially careful about protecting their food and garbage from bears.

Park Wildlife Biologist Kim DeLozier expects bears to be especially active and persistent in seeking food this fall because of a combination of limited natural food sources and higher bear numbers than in previous years.

“There are several general indications that our bears are currently very hungry and unable to locate much natural food,” DeLozier said.

DeLozier said the park has noticed that many bears are already in poor body condition, especially females with cubs. Plus, acorns and berries — two of the most important foods to bears — are scarce this year.

Bears typically fatten up on acorns before going into hibernation in the fall. But DeLozier said preliminary acorn surveys showed some areas had no acorns at all and others were very sparse.

Combined with a scarcity of natural food, bear population numbers appear to be up.

Park managers say that to avoid bear problems people should keep food and garbage away from bears. Inside the Park, visitors are provided with bear-proof dumpsters in developed areas and with bear-proof cable systems to suspend food in backcountry areas. Neighbors outside the Park are advised to keep garbage secured until trash collection day, to keep pet food indoors and to stop putting bird feed out until winter when bears go into hibernation.

“We are advising visitors that certain bears may be extremely bold in attempting to get food and are providing advice on how to respond to bear encounters while hiking,” DeLozier said.

DeLozier offered the following advice on how to act in case of a bear encounter:

“We always tell visitors to keep their distance from bears in any situation, and if the animal changes its behavior — like it stops feeding or changes directions — you are too close.

“Being too close may also prompt threatening behavior from the bear such as making short runs toward you, making loud noises, or slapping the ground. In this instance the bear usually just wants space, so back away slowly while watching the bear, but don’t turn and run as this can trigger the bear to chase you.

“But if a bear persists in following you closely or approaches you without vocalizing or paw swatting, try changing direction. If it continues, stand your ground, yell loudly and act aggressively by waving your arms or throwing rocks or sticks at it. Pick up a stout stick as a deterrent. If you are with others, clump together to appear a more formidable size.

“But don’t leave food as this often will make the bear more persistent and encourages it to approach other hikers hoping for handouts. If a bear indicates that it is after your food and you’re physically attacked, separate yourself from your food and back away slowly. In the extremely rare case where the bear shows no interest in your food and you are attacked — fight back, do not play dead.”

In order to protect future visitors from problem bears, Park managers ask that visitors report any bear activity observed in a campground or picnic area and any aggressive bears in the backcountry to park ranger. Bears observed feeding normally on natural food sources should be given a wide berth but need not be reported.

Problem bear activity in surrounding communities is managed by state wildlife agencies that can be contacted by calling local law enforcement.

While it is difficult to know for sure whether black bear numbers are indeed up, further exacerbating the wild food shortage, park biologist have seen two indicators in their bear population surveys that point to an increase. The first is simply more bears taking the bait at their survey sites.

“Our bear bait-station survey, conducted in July, was the highest visitation rate ever recorded for the survey,” DeLozier said.

In addition, there were more new bears being captured than in past surveys. Rather than the same old bears from past years turning up again, a greater percentage of new bears were added to the mix this year. The percentage of new bears caught in the survey went from 73 percent in 2005 to 80 percent this year.

Bear researchers with the University of Tennessee also captured a significantly higher number of bears this summer in comparison to the past few years.

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