Sep 08 2008 -

Bear Populations On The Rise

In Tennessee And Across North America

Are bears losing their natural fear of people? That theory, and several others, has been suggested to explain a steady increase in black bear attacks on humans, mostly in Canada. But most such theories do not have much of a following, said Stephen Herrero, of the University of Calgary, one of North America's foremost authorities on bear attacks.

The simple explanation is the one most researchers cite: a lot of bears plus a lot of people. The growing bear population, coupled with human encroachment on bear territory, is the most common explanation, offered by such bear experts as University of Tennessee adjunct professor Joe Clark and retired UT professor Mike Pelton. "The odds of running across an animal that reacts to a small human as prey is enhanced," Pelton said.

Efforts begun in the 1960s have successfully boosted the bear population in the Southeast and elsewhere, said Pelton, who recalls widespread concern about the region's dwindling bear population when he started his bear research in 1968.

Bears once were so devalued that some communities considered them vermin and paid a bounty for each one killed, Bradenburg said. Then came the American chestnut blight, which wiped out the black bear's major source of fat and protein. Logging companies cut away mile after mile of bear habitat, Bradenburg said.

The Great Smoky Mountains created a sanctuary for black bears as early as the 1930s, but poaching during the Great Depression and the war years was prevalent in some areas of the park. Bear sanctuaries and other "bear-boosting" measures were taken during the late 20th century.

Now, bear sightings are regularly reported, sometimes in unusual areas, and nuisance calls to TWRA have increased dramatically in the last 10 years. New Jersey reported 52 "home invasions" by black bears during a recent year, said Pelton, while Pennsylvania recorded more than 300 road kills.