Do NOT feed the birds (or bears)!

It varies in different areas, but eighty percent of a black bear's typical diet is plant material. This times of year, when things are just beginning to "green up," bears have to do a lot of foraging. Therefore bear sighting often increase in the late winter and spring. (Photo: Contributed by USFWS)

For years wildlife experts have shared the message of backyard wildlife and how anyone, even folks who live in suburbia, can enjoy the beauty of the outdoors with something as simple as a bird feeder. But these days, if you live in bear country, those same experts say, "Take those bird feeders down."

"We're just starting to get a lot of calls on a few bears," said Dan Gibbs, East Tennessee bear biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. "Bears are coming out of hibernation and there's not a lot of vegetation so they have to do lots of foraging around to find food. And they quickly find dog food, garbage or bird feeders."

Wildlife biologists put the Tennessee black bear population at 6,500 to 7,000. A couple of decades ago, nearly every bear in Tennessee lived inside or on the border of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. But now the GSMNP bear population is estimated at about 1,500, meaning about 5,000 bears live outside the park in East Tennessee and in the Cumberland Plateau Region, which includes the areas around Chattanooga.

Should that scare you?

Gibbs says, "No. A predatory black bear is a very rare thing. There are a lot more things to worry about out there than bears."

In the last seventeen years there have been 16 documented deaths due to black bears in North America. Only three of those occurred in the Eastern United States, two of those in Tennessee in 2000 and 2006.

"Both of those attacks were predatory," said Gibbs. "I don't think there is anything those people could have done to prevent those attacks. Things have been quiet since then and I'd prefer people not dwell on that stuff. The most important thing is to avoid conflicts."

Frank Van Manen, currently a Research Wildlife Biologist with the USGS, studied black bears in Tennessee for 20 years. Now he lives in Montana.

"Now that I'm working with grizzly bears in Yellowstone the perspective [on bear dangers] changes dramatically," he said. "The concerns of human safety with black bears are very low."

He agrees that the most important message is avoidance.

"Many wildlife agencies do send out a mixed message," said van Manen.

On one hand wildlife agencies promote the enjoyment and beauty of attracting backyard wildlife. On the other hand the bear experts say, "Don't put out bird feeders."

"If you live in bear country you and backyard wildlife don't go together," said Gibbs. "If you live in bear country you need to take those bird feeders down. The goal is to keep the bear moving. That's what we want to see... a bear moving through the area is just a bear being a bear."

TWRA officers are often called to deal with bears that have become habituated to humans, especially in the Gatlinburg area. Many people expect those "problem bears" to be trapped and relocated.

The TWRA experts say that due to the relatively large home ranges and mobility of bears, there is no place remote enough in Tennessee to relocate bears where they will not have contact with humans. And moving problem bears does exactly that - it simply moves the problem from one place to another. They say often there are no alternatives but to kill bears that have become a threat to human safety.

"Your actions, good and bad, influence bear behavior," said Gibbs. "We want to instill sort of a 'pay it forward," attitude. If campers consider leaving garbage in an area when they leave, they need to remember that someone else will be camping there after they're gone. Or more importantly, remember that someone else was camping there BEFORE you got there. We just want people to remember that their actions always impact others."

We put a solicitation for "bear encounter" stories out on Facebook. We got numerous bear encounter stories from hunters, folks who were out in the woods looking and hoping to have a bear encounter, and they did. In many cases a closer encounter than they expected.

We got other stories from people enjoying a day in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, where bears have become habituated to humans and regularly seek out picnic areas for a free meal.

Of all the many responses received, there were no anecdotes of a wild, "non-park" bear threatening anyone. It does happen, but it is exceedingly rare.

All the wildlife experts ask is that you do what you can NOT to attract bears or otherwise influence their behavior, such as:

  • Do not feed bears
  • Store garbage in bear-proof containers or in a manner that is inaccessible to bears (Go here to learn where you can buy bear-proof garbage cans)
  • Do not feed birds between April and January when bears are most active
  • Keep pet food indoors and feed pets in the house or garage
  • Do not add food to your compost piles
  • Keep cooking grills clean and stored indoors when not in use
  • When camping keep your food stored in your vehicle, if back country camping keep food hung at least ten feet high and four feet out on a limb
  • When hiking in bear country don't ever take pets and always talk loudly to forewarn bears of your presence

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