On a foggy morning just off U.S. 441/Newfound Gap Road, a park ranger’s truck was spotted hauling an olive green culvert to the back of Chimney Tops picnic area. A few folks had gathered to eat an early lunch and take photos of the river. Two rangers approached the group and pose the following question: “Would you like to see a bear today?”
The thrilled visitors surrounded the culvert at the rangers’ request. To their delight, the rangers opened the culvert door and a young male black bear bolted up the mountain, heading deep into the woods.
This isn’t a typical morning in the Smokies for most visitors, but for Wildlife Management park rangers Ryan Williamson and Greg Grieco, it’s as standard as going through your email. During my most recent Experience Your Smokies session, my classmates and I spent an afternoon with Ryan and Greg and even travelled out into the field with them.
Growing up in the Smokies, my earliest childhood memories heavily feature the local wildlife. Whether I was traveling to Greenbrier with my sister to spot fish, salamanders, and snakes or watching a mama bear and her cubs travel across my Papaw’s backyard, animals were always around. As I got older, my relationship with animals became less of a spectator sport and more of a comfortable familiarity. Most days, my commute to work on the Sugarlands campus is interrupted by a rafter of wild turkeys leisurely crossing the bypass. I stop, they travel across the road, and I continue to work.
After meeting with Ryan and Greg, I discovered that my relationship with the creatures of the Smokies is unusual. They told stories of traffic jams in the park caused by turkeys and full chaos in Cades Cove caused by a single bear sighting. I imagine if you’ve not grown up in Appalachia, seeing a black bear in the wild can be stunning and overcome your rational mind, but visitors should know wild animals could face consequences form the actions of humans.
That morning at Chimney Tops picnic area, the rangers were releasing a nuisance bear after a night of being “worked up.” Basically, they collect the bear’s DNA, attach tags, and begin tracking its location. It was most likely caught because it became to conditioned to human food or showed signs of aggression. The team encourages lots of noise and the presence of people at the time of release so the bear does not continue to feel comfortable around people. In most cases, a paintball gun is used as a deterrent for the bear or the bear is held overnight in a culvert to divert its behaviors. Only as a last resort would a bear be euthanized, and GSMNP averages 1.4 bear euthanizations annually.
Visitors must stay at least 50 yards away from wildlife at all times. If you witness another visitor approaching wildlife, try to explain the importance of keeping your distance. Visitors should stay safe and bears should stay wild.