DNA tests have concluded a bear trapped and killed by park rangers isn’t in fact the same one that attacked a camper in the remote Hazel Creek area of Swain County on June 6. The area remains closed and the search for the right bear continues.
However, it’s likely that the bear involved in the attack is already dead, according to park spokesperson Dana Soehn.
Rangers had shot and wounded another bear early in their search. But it ran off and they haven’t been able to find it — or its body. DNA recovered from a bullet that went through the bear was deemed a likely match, but was only 65 percent conclusive due to the limited DNA on the bullet.
That’s posing a conundrum for rangers: do they keep looking or give up?
Wildlife biologists strongly suspect the bear that was shot but got away was the right one based on the likely DNA match from the bullet. If it crawled off and died somewhere, it would be pointless to keep looking.
But likewise, it’s hard to give up when there’s still a slight chance the bear is still out there, Soehn said. The area remains closed and the search continues out of an “abundance of caution,” Soehn said.
Each day that passes without another bear sighting in the area or around the backcountry campsite where the attack occurred reinforces rangers’ belief, however, that the bear they initially shot was the right one, and it has since died from its gunshot.
“Toward the end of the week we will make a decision, I hope, to reopen the area,” Soehn said.
This week was the first time the public learned that rangers had shot at and hit another bear, in addition to the one that was trapped and killed. Previous reports from the park were focused on the bear that was trapped and killed. It’s only after DNA testing came back — revealing it was the wrong one — did the park announce that rangers had shot and wounded the other bear.
Bill Lea, a renowned black bear photographer from Franklin who has spent years observing bears in the wild, questioned why the park had to indiscriminately shoot bears on sight. In particular, he doesn’t understand why the bear that was trapped was immediately euthanized, rather than held in captivity pending the DNA results.
“Granted it is a lot of work,” Lea said of hauling the bear out of the backcountry and finding a suitable pen to hold it in. “But I think the general public values the life of a bear, especially since it wasn’t the right bear.”
Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash said the park was compelled to act swiftly in light of a serious attack that posed a threat to human safety.
“Though extremely rare and regrettable, we recognize that an uninvolved bear was euthanized through this process,” Cash said in a press release.
New protocols will likely be developed going forward, given such quick turn-around time on the DNA analysis, Cash said.
If any more bears are trapped this week, the park hopes to hold them while waiting on the DNA test.
“At the time we weren’t confident how long it would take and whether we could hold an animal that long,” Soehn said.
Lea was glad to hear the park has reconsidered its strategy.
“We don’t need more innocent bears being executed,” Lea said.
Violent, unprovoked bear attacks are extremely rare. Rangers hoped to find and kill the bear for fear it posed a risk to other campers and hikers.
They staked out the Hazel Creek area with a plethora of traps and cameras and posted hidden snipers in the woods, particularly around the campsite. Bears are territorial, so rangers believed it would just be a matter of time before it showed back up.
“There is a very high likelihood that a bear involved in the attack would return to the same spot. The likelihood that a bear not involved would stumble into that scene is far less,” Soehn said.
Right on cue, a bear wandered back into the campsite the very next night after the attack. That’s the one that rangers shot at and hit it before it ran off.
They tracked it, but a thunderstorm came up, and they lost the trail, Soehn said.
The following day, another bear came into the campsite. That was the one that was caught in a trap and euthanized.
The June 6 bear attack involved a teenager who was sleeping in a hammock. The bear bit him on the head and dragged him away. His father sleeping nearby woke to sounds of his son screaming and fought the bear off by beating it repeatedly, even jumping on the bear’s back.
The teenager is expected to make a full recovery, but will likely be left with facial scars. His eyes were not injured.