Black Bear Euthanized After Attacking Sleeping Family Inside Tent at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

by Jon D. B.

Highly conditioned to human food sources, the 350-pound black bear “boldly” entered the campsite, injuring a 3-year-old and her mother.

On the morning of Sunday, June 12, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) wildlife biologists and park rangers would respond to human injuries at Elkmont Campground. As per GRSM’s media release, a family of five and their dog were sleeping when a black bear ripped into their tent at approximately 5:20 a.m. Sunday.

Once inside, the bear scratched a 3-year-old girl and her mother while attempting to obtain food. After several attempts, the father was able to scare the bear out of the tent, then off the campsite altogether.

“The bear weighed approximately 350 pounds, which is not standard for this time of year, suggesting the bear had previous and likely consistent access to non-natural food sources,” says Lisa McInnis, Chief of Resource Management. “In this incident, the bear was likely attracted to food smells throughout the area, including dog food at the involved campsite.”

The presence of dog food is paramount, as pet foods are highly attractive to bears. Improperly stored pet foods are one of the most common black bear attractants. And once a bear becomes habituated to human food sources, “It is very difficult to deter this learned behavior and, as in this case, the result can lead to an unacceptable risk to people.” McInnis cites.

‘Both mother and daughter sustained superficial lacerations to their heads’

After the attack, the family left a note with the Elkmont campground office reporting the incident. They then left to seek medical attention. “Both mother and daughter sustained superficial lacerations to their heads,” park officials cite.

A black bear searches for food along the Tennessee border at Newfound Gap. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the Tennessee and North Carolina borders in the heart of the Appalachian Mountain Range. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Park officials were notified of the incident at approximately 8:50 a.m. by the campground hosts. Park rangers would then close the immediate area and interview the father of the involved family alongside other campers. Collecting site information such as bear tracks and other markers that could help identify the bear, GRSM staff would then set traps for black bears.

Before long, a male black bear “matching the physical description of the involved bear” entered the family’s Elkmont campsite. “The bear exhibited extreme food-conditioned behavior and lack of fear of humans, boldly entering the trap without wariness,” GRSM cites. “Based on a match with physical measurements and descriptors, along with observed bear behavior, biologists successfully matched and identified the responsible bear.”

Black Bear Attack ‘Inconsistent With Predatory Behavior’, ‘Food Conditioned Bear’ Euthanized

According to park officials, the bear’s behavior is inconsistent with predatory behavior. Instead, this was “a food conditioned bear.”

With this positive ID, GRSM wildlife biologists successfully captured the responsible bear. Due to the risk to human safety, the bear was humanly euthanized on Monday, June 13.

Such is the result of habituating bears to human food sources. Once bears learn to associate humans and human sites with food, both their safety and that of people greatly diminishes. Food-aggressive bears often must be euthanized to prevent further behavior associated with food-conditioned bears, such as this family’s injuries.

“Human-bear conflicts peak in late May and June when natural foods, like berries, are not yet available,” GRSM continues. Bears will pursue the smell of foods and garbage human-developed areas, like campgrounds and picnic areas. Campers should take necessary precautions as a result. This includes properly following food storage regulations while in bear country.

“Park staff will continue to track reports of bear activity in campgrounds and other busy locations and notify the public regarding any site warnings or closures,” GRSM cites.

Though rare, attacks on humans can occur, causing injuries or death. If attacked by a black bear, rangers strongly recommend fighting back with any object available. Remember that black bears may view you as prey.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

For more information on bear safety, view GRSM’s website here.

To learn how to be BearWise, view our How to Be BearWise with Great Smoky Mountains’ Lead Wildlife Biologist next.