A visitor in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park got nipped on the foot by a bear after getting too close last week.
The visitor was on a high-traffic foot path at the entrance to the park right outside Gatlinburg, Tenn. In an effort to photograph the bear, the visitor allowed it to approach within inches. The bear bit the man’s foot and left a puncture wound so small that it did not require medical attention.
The bear will be euthanized, however. It’s park policy to euthanize a bear that injures a person for fear the bear may repeat the behavior. The bear had been hanging out around the trail that day, based on sightings by other visitors. Park rangers were unable to catch it that day, but went back again the next day and found it.
Given the bear’s willingness to approach humans, park rangers believe he had grown accustomed to being fed by park visitors, and even got reports from visitors who witnessed the bear being fed. Bears that develop a preference for human food can become more aggressive in their attempts to get it, which usually ends poorly for the bear.
It is illegal to approach wildlife, but in this case, the visitor technically was approached by the bear rather than approaching it.
“Our regulation is for individuals who willfully approach within 50 yards of a bear or elk,” said Nancy Gray, a spokesperson for the park. “That doesn’t apply if there is an encounter on the trail.”
Bears are usually hungry in the spring. They’ve depleted their winter fat stores, yet few foods are available yet. Bears are particularly hungry this year. They typically fatten up on acorns in the fall, but the acorn crop was scant last year. Many bears are underweight and in poor body condition, especially yearlings.
All visitors are advised to be even more diligent in keeping their distance and securing food.