KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Last year’s hunting season had little impact on the bear population in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a University of Tennessee researcher said Monday.
Dr. Michael Pelton, a wildlife professor at UT-Knoxville, conducts a bear trapping project in the park to learn more about the animals’ reproduction rates, life span and habitat requirements. Information is collected and the bears are released.
Although hunting is illegal within the park, bears roam into unprotected areas. There have been concerns that last year’s record harvest of bears near the park may have diminished the park’s population. Pelton said his findings indicate the population remains high.
”More than 60 bears already have been trapped this summer in one area, which is better than our 30-year-average in the same location,” Pelton said.
”In an average year we will catch 50 to 60 bears, but this year we expect to catch 75 to 85.”
The first indication that all but a few park bears escaped last fall’s harvest came when most of the animals killed by hunters did not have tags indicating they had lived in the park.
”We have tagged hundreds of bears in the park, but they did not show up in big numbers in the 300-some-odd bears killed,” Pelton said. ”Only a handful were tagged.”
Pelton and other researchers last year revised the official estimate of the park’s bear population from 700 to 900 to well over 1,000.
”There are fewer bears this year, but the population is high and in no danger,” Pelton said.
What decline there has been in the population probably had as much to do with a shortage of food and accidents with motor vehicles, Pelton said.
The bear population is evenly distributed over the park, although the animals tend to concentrate in places where the berries are ripe, Pelton said.
When the berries are gone, the bears eat a diet primarily of acorns, Pelton said. It was a partial failure of last year’s acorn crop that caused a food shortage for the bears.