GATLINBURG, Tenn.– Growth of the black bear population in the Smokies will likely send more animals wandering into residential neighborhoods, a University of Tennessee wildlife professor said Wednesday.
Dr. Mike Pelton, professor of forestry, wildlife and fisheries, said the number of bears in the park has probably doubled over the last 30 years.
When UT started its studies in the Smokies in 1968, there were an estimated 200-300 bears in the national park. Pelton said a conservative estimate today is 500-700.
“This may be the calm before the storm. We may be getting ready for a period like we had three or four years ago when food was scarce and bears came spilling out of the park into people’s backyards,” he said.
“The (Tennessee) Wildlife Resources Agency and the National Park Service has been busy all summer dealing with extra bears.”
So far the food supply in the park is holding up, but whether the bears continue to have enough to eat will depend on the availability of acorns this fall.
The size of this year’s acorn crop, a staple in bears’ diets as the animals fatten themselves for winter, won’t be known for another month, Pelton said.
“If we have a bad year, it is going to be rough on bears because there are so many out there,” Pelton said. “It’s also going to keep some people busy.”
Tennessee will likely have a bigger problem with wandering bears than North Carolina because the Volunteer State has less national forest acreage that serves a buffer between the park and developed areas, he said.
“On much of the Tennessee side we have nothing but private land and development,” he said.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park includes more than 500,000 acres along the mountainous border of Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. UT’s bear study includes the entire park.
Contact: Dr. Michael Pelton (423-974-7126)