A new four-state study estimates the black bear population in East Tennessee at 5,500 to 6,000.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency still is reviewing the report, but wildlife biologist Dan Gibbs said the numbers for Tennessee are a bit lower than he would have thought outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The total estimate for East Tennessee encompasses an area from Mountain City to east of Chattanooga and includes the national park.
An increase in human-bear conflict calls does not appear to be from a rise in the bear population.
Be bear wise
In most cases, Gibbs said, conflicts with bears are related to the availability of food, such as trash, pet food or bird food. The BearWise program aims to educate people on safe practices, such as attracting birds with plants, water features and nesting boxes, not feeders.
With an increase in the human population in some areas, Gibbs said, “there are going to have to be some changes in the way people act around bears.”
The wildlife biologist has seen how effective that can be. A 2013 study in the Big South Fork National Recreation Area northwest of Knoxville and near the Kentucky line found a a high population of bears near one of the busiest and largest campgrounds, but Gibbs said there are few conflicts because of practices such as not allowing coolers to sit out.
TWRA previously has used data from bear harvests and bait station indexes to gauge the population.
“It’s pretty hard to make decisions on those year to year,” Gibbs said, noting the numbers can be affected by such factors as weather.
In 2017 and 2018, the Southern Appalachian Cooperative Bear Study set up snares to collect fur samples in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia and then sent those for DNA testing so it could estimate the bear population across about 14 million acres.
Three of the snare clusters were set up within Blount County, but Gibbs was unable to give specific information on those areas at this time.
The data will help agencies including TWRA and the U.S. Forest Service gauge the abundance and density of the black bear population and plan management strategies and policies. Discussions also will cover six bear preserves in East Tennessee outside the national park, where hunting is not allowed.