National Parks Journal: How to Be BearWise with Great Smoky Mountains’ Lead Wildlife Biologist

by Jon D. B.
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Love black bears? Headed to Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Learn how to be BearWise with the park’s lead wildlife biologist, Bill Stiver.

Bill Stiver has been with Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) for 31 years. He’s as knowledgeable as humans come with black bears. And as spring rolls in, these marvelous boars and sows are awakening from their long hibernation.

It’s imperative to be bear wise when in bear country any time of year. But spring marks a grand return to national parks for both bears and visitors. As GRSM’s lead wildlife biologist, Bill is keen on educating the public ahead of time to ensure both our safety – and that of the bears we cherish.

“Certainly any time you come into the park, you need to be knowledgeable about bears,” Bill begins for Outsider’s National Parks Journal. “Black bears are pretty much everywhere in the Smokies. So whether you’re in a campground or a picnic area, or especially back country camping, you need to have knowledge of our bears and how to live and recreate responsibly. And that’s where BearWise comes in.”

Being BearWise in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Founded by the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the BearWise program “teaches people how to live responsibly with black bears,” Bill offers. “It was developed by a bear biologist in the Southeast, and the thought behind it is to have a consistent message from one area to another. We want people to see the same, correct information so there’s less confusion with bears in bear country.”

At it’s core, BearWise offers Six Basics for being outdoors in bear country:

  • Stay Alert & Stay Together: Pay attention to your surroundings and stay together. Walk, hike, jog, or cycle with others when possible. Keep kids within sight and close by. Leave earbuds at home and make noise periodically so bears can avoid you.
  • Leave No Trash or Food Scraps: Double bag your food when hiking and pack out all food and trash. Don’t burn food scraps or trash in your fire ring or grill. Leaving scraps, wrappers, or even “harmless” items like apple cores teaches bears to associate trails and campsites with food.
  • Keep Dogs Leashed: Letting dogs chase or bark at bears is asking for trouble; don’t force a bear to defend itself. Keep your dogs leashed at all times or leave them at home.
  • Camp Safety: Set up camp away from dense cover and natural food sources. Cook as far from your tent as possible. Do not store food, trash, clothes worn when cooking, or toiletries in your tent. Store in approved bear-resistant containers OR out of sight in a locked vehicle OR suspended at least 10 feet above the ground and 10 feet from any part of the tree. (Bill and GRSM recommend 4 feet from tree trunks).
  • Carry Bear Spray, Know How To Use It: Bear spray is proven to be the easiest and most effective way to deter a bear that threatens you. It doesn’t work like bug repellent, so never spray your tent, campsite or belongings.
  • *Know What To Do If You See a Bear: See detailed breakdown below*

As Bill explains, BearWise has become the foremost tool in streamlining crucial information concerning black bear encounters, conflicts, and survival for both humans and bears.

BearWise has been a hit for this exact reason. The National Park Service has embraced it at large, with Great Smoky Mountains National Park being one of its biggest proponents. And in Bill’s over three decades with the park, the black bear population has grown from 500 bears to 1,900 bears, he cites. “In that same timeframe, our visitation has gone from 8.5 million to 14.1 million. And if you look at growth around the park, the number of permanent residence in Sevier County alone has doubled.”

As a result, “We have a lot more bears, a lot more visitors, and a lot more residents, right? So more than ever before, it’s important to educate people on how to live responsibly with bears.”

And it’s all about “very consistent, concise information,” Bill continues. “What do you do if you encounter a bear on the trail? How do you properly store your food while camping? What are the BearWise basics for residents at home? Now you can look all of this up before you come visit the Smokies. All of the things we ask people to do within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the exact guidelines offered by BearWise now. And that’s the point.”

The program’s website, bearwise.org, is a fantastic resource for all things black bear. But Bill wishes to drive home a few key lessons for visitors of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Leave No Trace: ‘Manage Your Attractants’

“The fundamental thing when dealing with black bears is not to let them get our food or garbage, daytime or nighttime,” Bill emphasizes. “So when you’re visiting or living here, properly storing your food, pet food, and trash, is key.”

If you’re backpacking, “We have food storage cables at all our backcountry campsites that properly hang your food. We also encourage people to hang their packs. Bears are very vision-oriented, too, and even if a pack doesn’t have any food in it, they’re going to tear it up anyway.”

And of course, “Pack up all your trash. Don’t leave any scraps behind. Bears will find it.”

In GRSM’s backcountry, particularly, Bill says visitors have been bad about leaving their trash in fire rings; particularly at shelters. This is a big no-no. “I can show you picture after picture of the bears coming in and finding scraps or trash in the fire rings. So it’s really important to manage attractants,” he adds, with attractants being anything that will attract a bear: trash, food scraps, personal hygiene items like deodorants and toothpastes, etc. Anything that holds a scent, or isn’t of nature in general, is an attractant and will attract the black bear’s keen sense of smell.

Always View Wildlife from a Safe Distance, Especially Black Bears

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American black bear, the only species of bear in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

“We love people to see bears, right? People come to the Smokies to see bears. And bears are very charismatic!” Bill smiles. But bears are also large predators. While normally quite shy and non-aggressive, black bears can injure or attack humans. Whether out of curiosity or a hunting instinct, these attacks can turn deadly in an instant. So it is of the utmost importance to know what to do when confronting a black bear whether in GRSM or elsewhere in North America.

“We want people to have the opportunity to see a bear, but we want them to be able to do so in a very responsible way that avoids conflict. So, for starters, we don’t approach bears. We have a regulation: do not willfully approach a bear within 50 yards. And frankly, this is one of our biggest issues.”

*Know What To Do If You See a Black Bear

Yet abiding by all regulations and BearWise advice does not mean you won’t encounter a bear. We are in their territory in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, after all. So what do you do if you come upon a black bear, or a black bear comes upon you?

“If a bear is following you on a trail, for example, and you see it first – the first thing to do is to give it its right-of-way,” Bill explains. “And hopefully it’ll go along its way. If it doesn’t, then you stand your ground, wave your arms and make yourself look big and threatening.”

If a bear is particularly aggressive, Bill says, “throw something at the bear while yelling and screaming.” If the bear backs off, you do the same, and leave the area immediately.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park or Elsewhere: ‘If a black bear truly attacks you, you fight back’

But everyone always wants to know what to do in the event of an actual black bear attack. In this case, which Bill describes as the “worst case scenario… If a black bear truly attacks you, you fight back.”

There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation out there when it comes to bear attacks. Especially considering the vast differences between black and brown bears. Browns and grizzlies, Bill says, typically attack in a defensive nature. That is to say they’re defending their cubs or a food source. But for black bears specifically, “Attacks are typically offensive and predatory in nature,” Bill cites. “And so you always fight back to try and get that animal off of you.”

In the end, “knowing how to recreate responsibly in bear habitat is imperative,” Bill offers. “And educating people on the only species of bear we have in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, black bears, is the first step. They are wild animals, their behavior is unpredictable, and we have had fatalities here in the park. So knowing what to do and how to be BearWise is the best defense you can have – and the best chance at a safe trip for both you and our bears.”

For more on GRSM‘s Recreate Responsibly program and how it overlaps with BearWise safety, check out these National Parks Journal offerings next:

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