By Richard Simms
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 experts say, “Take those bird feeders down.”
Black bear populations are increasing all across the nation and especially in the Southeast.
Biologists say that black bear populations are stable all across the U.S., however, they are increasing dramatically in Eastern states and especially in the Southeast. (Photo courtesy Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency)
“If you look at black bear populations across the entire U.S. in every case they are either stable or increasing,” according to Daryl Ratajczak, a U.S. Forest Service biologist and the former Wildlife Chief for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “Eastern state black bear populations were low and generally that’s where there are the highest increases. In almost every Southeastern state black bear populations are growing.”
In Tennessee for example, wildlife biologists put the black bear population at about 7,000 animals.
Twenty years ago nearly every bear in Tennessee lived inside or on the border of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Now the GSMNP bear population is estimated at about 1,500, meaning more than 5,000 bears live outside the park in East Tennessee and in the Cumberland Plateau Region with occasional sightings extended into Middle Tennessee.
Many, if not most, of those sightings outside of the traditional areas happen in spring.
March and April are the months when sows run their yearlings away, especially the males, forcing them to venture out to seek their own new territories.
“It is Mother Nature’s way of dispersing populations and keeping gene pools pure,” said Ratajczak. “In some cases it also because the bears are searching hard for food sources. They’re especially hungry coming out of hibernation. Late winter and early spring is a stressful time for bears.”
Those young bears cover hundreds of miles and in their search for a new home, often wandering into cities and suburban areas.
“That is happening more often,” said Ratajczak. “Human populations are increasing and bear populations are increasing. It just stands to reason that they’re going to cross paths more often.”
In the last 20 years, there have been about 25 fatal attacks by black bears in North America.
Tennessee biologists used to say the chances of an attack by a black bear were near zero.
That changed in the year 2000 when Glenda Bradley, 50, was attacked and killed in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Another deadly attack of 6-year-old Elora Petrasek took place in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest in 2006.
The girl’s mother and brother were also injured in that attack.
While black bear attacks are still exceedingly rare and Ratajczak doesn’t want to be an alarmist, he does believe there will be more black bear attacks in Tennessee and the Southeast.
“It is going to happen again, the only question is when,” said Ratajczak. “It’s impossible to predict, but in the next 20 years I’d say it’s almost guaranteed.”
In spite of that, a scientific survey conducted in Tennessee indicated that the majority of people want bears living in their area.
Of 400 people across the state, the majority (87%) indicate they support having bears in Tennessee.
And 72% of Tennesseans support the idea of having bears within their county.
Ratajczak and every other bear expert agree however that the absolute best protection from negative, or deadly, encounters is to avoid interactions in the first place.
One common attractant that people don’t think about these days are bird feeders.
A hunter’s game camera captured these bear raiding a feeder in Rhea County, Tennessee, an area that was never frequented by bears until just a few years ago. (Contributed Photo)
If you Google black bears and birds feeder, you will see that images abound of the marauders.
Bears are omnivorous, meaning they eat plants and other animals. And apparently, they love bird seeds and will make quick work of backyard bird feeder, especially those placed by folks who live in remote areas.
Experts suggest those people should give up their bird feeding in the late winter and early spring.
They ask folks to remember that, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”
Others ways to keep them away include:
— Obviously, no feeding them on purpose
— Store garbage in bear-proof containers or in a manner that is inaccessible to bears
— 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