Ursa Major: The bears of Tennessee
The trail to Grotto Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a popular hike for families. It was also a nostalgic visit for me, as I last walked that trail in 1974 with my family and a friend’s family. I still remember it was impressive to the nine-year-old me who was more interested in things like seeing a shrunken head at Gatlinburg’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum then the grandeur of the mountains. And for the forty seven year old me, the falls were just as impressive.
But heading back, the falls, the nostalgia and the scenery took second billing about halfway down the trail.
A crash came from the bushes near a small creek. First thought- someone had fallen off the trail. Two hikers were ahead, frozen in their tracks. And there it was, an American Black Bear munching on plants. “You aren’t in any hurry to get to the end of the trail, are you?” I said to the other hikers. Where does a giant black bear (ursas americanas) eat his lunch? Anywhere he wants to.
Bears are most common in East Tennessee specifically the Smoky Mountains, Cumberland Gap and Cherokee National Forest according to Bill Stiver, wildlife biologist for the National Park Service. But there are some exceptions. A bear which traveled from Alabama, through Mississippi was spotted by police last July near a Taco Bell in Lakeland, a suburb northeast of Memphis. The bear was tranquilized, sent to the Memphis Zoo for observation and then released in East Tennessee presumably now living nowhere near a Taco Bell. And they are not exclusive to the wilderness. A fuzzy video shows a black bear who shattered the glass door of the Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen in Gatlinburg earlier this year and going on an early morning shopping spree before the store opened. Seeing black bears fondness for fast food and candy shows ursas americanas and homo sapiens are not that different from one another.
“We have a regulation you are not supposed to approach within fifty yards of a bear or an elk,” said Stiver. And seeing those burly creatures and claws it is surprising a law needed to be written to cover common sense. “We did have an incident a few years ago where a yearling black bear caught a deer fawn and some visitors kicked the bear away,” he remembers. The fawn, beaten up badly by the omnivorous bear, had to be euthanized and was returned to where it was discovered.
Bears do better wild and a great way to keep them that way is to not feed them. Do not leave food on the trail as bears equating humans with food could easily turn out badly for both humans and bear. A bear looking at humans as waiters and waitresses in their restraunt may need to be killed before – or in some cases after- the bear has hurt someone.
Stiver could not confirm the persistent rumor of parents putting jelly/honey/peanut butter on the faces of children so the bears could lick it off for a cute photo op. It sounds less like sane parenting and more like a childhood memory of comedian Rodney Dangerfield.
“Some of the big attraction of the Smokys is to view wildlife we want to accommodate that when it is safe to do so,” he says. “We have a lot of staff that helps with viewing opportunities.”
The bears are a lot smaller than people think,” Stiver says. “In the summer the average for a female adult is one hundred pounds and an adult male is two hundred pounds. By the fall if we have a good acorn crop they can double their weight.” The largest he has seen was about 600 pounds, but that was after a lot of dumpster diving.
A common story is the most dangerous bear is the mother around her cubs, but looking at human fatalities, Stiver says adult males are the most likely to kill someone. “Of course every bear has the potential of becoming dangerous.”
Usually bears began acting menacing as a way to tell people they are too close. Back off and you will generally be ok. Or they could be after the food. Though feeding the bears is not permitted, it is better to separate yourself from your food if that is what the bear is after. They have a weakness for Hershey bars and Dr. Pepper just the way we do. But if the bear sees you as potential prey, make a lot of noise, take higher ground, make yourself look bigger by raising your arms or grabbing a stick. And if an attack takes place, which is extremely rare, fight back. Playing dead does not cause the bear to give up.
A female bear and her cub killed a woman on Little River Trail near the Elkmont Campgrounds in May, 2000. In April, 2006, a child was killed a mother and her son injured near Benton Falls in the Cherokee National Forest. And 2008 an eight year old and his father recieved lacerations from a bear at the trail head of Rainbow Falls Trail near Gatlinburg.
Our bear roadblock was about twenty five minutes. The main thought running through my mind is the bear had no reason to attack, but ultimately it was the bear’s decision. A bit unnerving. Getting several people together we all got close, raised our arms and made lots of noise. The bear headed off into the woods. We passed as the bear calmly watched us. After passing, we noticed the bear return to the trail headed towards the falls, no doubt to create travel stories for more visitors.
But more than unnerving, we all felt privileged to have such a close encounter with the park’s wildlife. About twenty years ago in his novel Generation X, author Douglas Copeland put it best: “adventure without risk is Disneyland.” This was no Disneyland, or even Dollywood. It was seeing nature on its own terms and a special moment for everyone sharing it.
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