GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WKRN) – A popular attraction for visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the wildlife. But when it comes to watching the animals, you should avoid an up-close experience.
“We want [people] to enjoy it, but we also want them to enjoy it from a safe distance,” says Bill Stiver, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “And here in the Smokies, Fifty yards is a safe distance for both bears and elk.”
The last situation you want to find yourself in is a conflict with a bear.
Biggest triggers for human/bear conflicts
You see it all the time on social media. People posting videos of bear sightings out in the wild. But the person behind the camera is usually getting too close for comfort, says Stiver. “We really want you to enjoy wildlife, but we want you to enjoy it from a safe distance, safe for you and for the animal.”
It’s a problem park visitors need to be mindful of, “We have over 11 million people about 1,600 bears, so we do have a lot of human, bear interactions and a lot of human, bear conflicts.”
Best ways to avoid potential conflicts with bears
While distance is vital in avoiding conflict with bears, another keyword to remember is trash.
“One of the fundamental ways to manage human, bear conflicts is to manage attractants and attractants mostly here in the park are trash.”
Stiver says you should always use bear-proof containers.
“Everything needs to go into a bear-proof container, or it needs to be taken out of the park to prevent bears from getting our garbage. Because we know once bears start getting our food and garbage, they become bolder and bolder over time.”
How to deescalate a human/bear encounter
If a bear comes around a campsite, Stiver says you need to act fast, “You want to run and scare it away, clap your hands, throw rocks, bang pans.”
If you’re hiking in a group you should stand together, wave your arms, and yell.
Stiver says to watch out for what they call a ‘bluff charge’ from the bear. “It’s a pretty common thing, like for a female who’s defending her cubs. She’ll bluff charge and run from me, to you, then away. What she’s telling you is you’re too close and you need to back up.”
Keeping humans & bears safe
The National Park Service is tracking bear behavior with GPS collars. Through the collars, they’ve learned that bears are going further out into the community than previously thought. That’s why park officials are working with Bearwise.
Bearwise is a program working to educate humans on how best to live and interact with bears responsibly. “If we, people of this region, care about bears, then we’ve got to work together to help prevent human-bear conflicts,” Stiver says.
When it comes to minimizing conflict, Stiver believes it’s a team effort, “Everybody loves bears. We all want to protect them, which means we all need to work together.”
News 2 is taking a deep look in the Smokies with the digital exclusive series “The Great Smoky Mountains: The Good, The Bad, The Future”. Click here to see more.
Janet Ivey is a special correspondent for News 2 on this report. Learn more about her here.