As temperatures warm up and COVID restrictions are lifted more tourists are hitting the streets - and the trails of Western North Carolina.
However, this is the time of year when natural food for bears is most scarce.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver explained that most bear-human conflicts occur from mid-May through August because of this lack of food. Stiver says June is the most challenging month.
Recently, the U.S. Forest Service advised visitors that there had been a rise in bear sightings in the Nantahala National Forest near Joyce Kilmer after a bears reportedly stole food and someone’s backpack.
Stiver said that part of this rise in interactions is that there are more visitors - and more bears - than ever before.
“The bear population in our region has grown significantly over the last 30 years. I’ve been here 30 years. When I first moved here, the estimate in the park was 400-600 bears now the most recent estimate is 1,900 bears,” said Stiver.
Visitations at the park have increased from 8.5 million to 12.5 million.
Stiver has this advice to stay safe:
“Never feed or approach a bear. Manage your food and your trash. Those are really the fundamental way to avoid human-bear conflicts,” said Stiver. That means keeping food in your trunk or secured in a bear-safe location such as on a cable.
Bears are visual creatures, Stiver explained, so if a backpack is on the ground they will check it out – and potentially tear it up in the process.
If you live in a community where there are a lot of bears then these rules also apply to the food near your home. This means putting up your bird feeders, pet food and garbage. Stiver also advises to keep your grill clean and be in touch with your neighbors about bear sightings.
Recently, visitors in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were given a citation for feeding peanut butter to a 100-pound bear. It is illegal to be within 50-feet of wildlife in the park - this includes feeding or touching animals.
You can find more information on bear safety at bearwise.org.