Last month, hikers stumbled upon a gruesome scene at Campsite 82 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: a black bear scavenging on human remains.
The campsite is one of the most isolated in the park; park technicians can access the area only after a two hour drive, a one hour boat ride and a one hour UTV ride, plus a half mile hike. The average visitor without access to motorized vehicles must embark on a six hour hike to reach Site 82.
At this time, the man’s death is under investigation, and only an autopsy will disclose whether or not the man died as a result of a bear attack or prior to the bear locating his body.
Either way, the incident is an uncommon one.
The park sees a violent incident between a bear and a human about once every two years, and only one person has died from a bear attack in the Smokies, according to Ryan Williamson, the wildlife technician for the Smokies.
“[Bears] typically have a really good fear of people, and they typically avoid us at all costs because they kind of see us as a predator initially, and then once they leave that sphere of people, which is called habituation, then they are willing to put up with the presence of people and tolerate the presence of people to ascertain really good habitats,” Williamson said.
However, as the ever-spreading coronavirus continues to limit many human activities to the outdoors, humans are increasingly pushing into bears’ habitats. The park was closed for six weeks at the beginning of the pandemic but has since reopened its gates to an influx of visitors.
Williamson explained that backcountry visitation, which includes trips to areas over one mile away from a trailhead, has been up at least 100% from the same time last year, and visitation in general has seen a steady increase that is possibly record-breaking.
In addition to high visitation rates, the bear population has increased recently as well. The park has 1,900 bears, one of the highest bear population densities in the country.
Typically, bears are afraid of humans, slipping away into the woods at the sight of a person. A small bear population, however, has adopted a harmless habituation to humans.
“When people see a bear, the first thing they do is they pull out their camera, and they start taking pictures, and the bear gets used to that, but he knows that those people are not going to harm him so he’s comfortable doing what he does everyday, which is hunt for food in his natural environment, and it’s just like he has paparazzi,” Williamson said.
Lisa Muller, an award-winning professor in the UT Institute of Agriculture’s Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, agrees with Williamson.
“I think with black bears, it’s going to be more they’re scared of the humans, and as long as it’s not a situation where, say, it’s a mother or a cub or in their direct path, I think they would much rather not interact with humans if possible,” Muller said.
She added that in particular, bears rarely scavenge on human remains.
“I think that’s a real unusual situation. Typically, they would never have that opportunity,” Muller said.
The elusive bears normally have no trouble escaping human interaction; their habitats encompass 98% of the park. But, bears are sensitive to the steady rise in visitation.
“The bears feel that pressure of people being near and adjacent to their habitats, and some bears are willing to tolerate it, some bears aren’t,” Williamson said. “The bears that aren’t willing to tolerate the people will push farther away back in the backcountry.”
The highest number of human-animal conflicts, which are usually nonviolent, occur in the summer when food supplies are scarce. As omnivores, bears exploit a variety of resources, and conflict is only exacerbated by high visitation rates.
“Unfortunately, sometimes bears look to people for food, and that would be a food conditioned behavior. So bears that look to people for food, those bears would be increasing their behavior because of the spike in visitation,” Williamson said.
Williamson warned that despite bears’ fluffy appearances as stuffed animals and on park logos, the animals are still predators.
“Regardless of what people think, black bears are predators, and if it comes down to it, they don’t have a problem being the big predator. … As long as we have bears and as long as we have people, we’re going to have conflict,” Williamson said. “Sometimes those conflicts cause the death of the bear, and sometimes those conflicts cause the death of the people. That’s the reality of living on the landscape with predators.”