National Parks Journal: It’s Black Bear Season, and ‘Biodegradable’ Waste is Still Waste

by Jon D. B.

It’s bear season. American black bears are out in full force, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park‘s Backcountry Manager, Ranger Christine Hoyer, has a crucial piece of advice that visitors often overlook.

Have you ever tossed an apple core, orange or banana peel to the side of the trail and thought, ‘It’s biodegradable, it doesn’t matter’? It’s a common happening in national parks, but the truth of the matter is: It does matter. A lot. Especially during midsummer – or bear season – when bears are highly active and foraging.

‘It’s a really important subject,” Ranger Christine Hoyer told me in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) ahead of bear season. “People to tend to see that a little bit differently. They’ll think, ‘Well, it’s going to go back into the land, right?’ But that process takes a really long time.”

In fact, it takes a banana peel two full years to decompose. And there’s little to zero odds of that peel ever decomposing before an opportunistic animal comes along. Enter the black bear.

‘Black bears are opportunistic, like most animals. They’re going to get to waste before we ever can.’

North American black bear. (Image Credit: Troy Harrison/Getty Images)

“Black bears are opportunistic, like most animals. They’re going to get to waste before we ever can, in a lot of cases. So if you’re out somewhere and you’ve got, say, an apple, orange, or banana, try to think about it as a resource. Is it appropriate to leave any resource here? If I’ve got an apple core and I’m in an apple orchard, then maybe,” Christine says. “But here in the Smokies, you don’t see a lot of apples orchards. Or banana or orange groves, for that matter.”

The heart of Hoyer’s job is rooted in NPS’s Leave No Trace principles. And when it comes to any food waste, it really is that simple: leave no trace. If you pack something in, pack it out. We may think of food waste as biodegradable, but instead, we need to be thinking about the following, Ranger Christine says.

“Think about what the animals around you would be exposed to already. Think about whether something, even if it’s biodegradable, would be natural in that space. Yes, sure, it’ll go away faster than plastic or glass. But our animals are going to get to it faster than it’ll ever break down. And if it’s not something they have in their natural food source, it’s going to be different. It’s going to be unique,” she emphasizes.

“That’s what draws animals in. That creates a real problem. And at the end of the day, that apple core, or banana peel, leads to a completely different outcome for animals, including black bears.”

Leave No Trace: Dispose of Waste Properly

“This ties directly into Leave No Trace principle three, Dispose of Waste Properly,” Christine explains. “If I walk around the Smokies and say, ‘I want you to pack out everything you packed in, because we don’t want to see the visual impact of that waste,’ then yes, that is also true. Trash isn’t what rangers are here to protect. But it’s also true that the real impacts of that are the ones you may not see.”

This, Hoyer says, is often “the black bear that gets it that night. And then that bear becomes a problem on that trail.”

This is habituation, something black bears are highly prone to. As opportunistic omnivores, black bears will eat just about anything. And their innate intelligence and curiosity makes them experts in this field. So when human waste is abundant, black bears become habituated to it. This is a danger to national park visitors, yes. But it’s a matter of life or death for bears.

Highly habituated bears can (and do) become aggressive towards humans as food sources. And this, more often than not, leads to their euthanization. Their death. Yet this is something all Outsiders can help prevent.

‘We want to think about how to keep our bears wild’

To prevent the problem before it even starts, “We want to think about how to keep our bears wild,” Ranger Christine says. “It’s really exciting to see a bear, but also be thinking about – the more we allow human and bear interactions happen, the more habituated those bears become to you.”

North American black bear sow with cub. (Photo by Jessica Matthews/For The Washington Post via Getty Images )

So the next time you visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or any of the many wild places that are home to black bears, “Be thinking about those ‘big whys,'” Christine says.

Why do we pack out our trash? We do it to protect the black bears. And everything that lives here.”

For more on Leave No Trace with GRSM’s backcountry manager, head on over to our ‘Leave No Trace’ in U.S. National Parks: Breaking Down the Seven Principles next. And be sure to brush up on your black bear safety before your next Smokies visit.