Bear tranquilized after Great Smoky Mountains visitors try to feed it peanut butter, rangers say

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — A bear had to be trapped and tranquilized in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Sunday after the animal was getting too close to humans who were trying to feed it peanut butter, wildlife officials said.

Bill Stiver, the park’s supervisory wildlife biologist, said the bear had been seen for the past few weeks eating leftover walnuts under a walnut tree. According to Stiver, his crews were receiving reports that the bear was allowing humans to get a little too close on Sunday in Cades Cove, a popular destination for visitors.

“We had started to get reports that people were throwing food towards this bear. And so, we were concerned that this bear might quickly become what we would call food conditioned,” Stiver said.

A food-conditioned bear is one that willfully approaches cars, people and homes just in search of food. So the bear doesn’t become food-conditioned Stiver said they took a proactive approach in hopes it would stay away from humans down the road.

“We captured the bear, tranquilized it, and marked it with ear tags, and actually released it back into Cades Cove. We didn’t move it,” Stiver said.

He said it’s a form of conditioning where the animal might gain fear of humans. According to him, this technique is about 60% successful, with success meaning they don’t have to deal with the bear again.

“The idea being that we wanted that animal to be afraid of people and not allow people to get very close, because we know sooner or later somebody is going to throw food out,” Stiver said.

Jeannine Henney, a wildlife activist and rescuer, said visitors don’t tend to see the consequences after they choose to feed the bears.

“I don’t really think people are trying to do them harm. I think they’re so excited and are like ‘oh my God,’ and want a picture, and they’re trying to get a picture on their cell phone. I understand all that But, they go home and then everybody here has to hear what happened,” Henney said.

Henney was there when the bear was trapped and tranquilized, so she saw how helpless the bear looked because of human behavior.

“The reason he’s blindfolded like that is actually protection for his eyes. They put drops in there and they put a cover on their eyes as a protection for their eyes so they don’t dry out while they’re under sedation,” Henney said.

Henney volunteers for Appalachian Bear Rescue and helps rescue wildlife in East Tennessee. She just happened to be in Cades Cove Sunday looking for birds when she came across the bear trap. She took photos of the bear after officials trapped and tranquilized it because she wanted to show people what happens when bears are fed human food, or can easily access human food.

It was a busy day in Cades Cove, Henney said, and she saw several cars pass by what was happening to the bear. She hopes people see those photos and learn why they shouldn’t get close to bears, and why they shouldn’t feed them or any other wildlife.

“Go home and tell your story and tell what you saw and explain what happened here and how it can be prevented,” Henney said.

Stiver said this incident can be prevented by being bear wise, which people can learn at bearwise.org. He said that it’s important people are especially bear wise during May and June, because that’s when bears are more out and about looking for food.

“Late May and June is a really stressful time for bears. You know, it’s a, there’s not a lot of natural foods out there, the berries won’t come on until July, so it’s really important that we’re vigilant about managing our trash and attractants of that nature, to prevent human-bear conflicts this time of year,” Stiver said.

Stiver said that since early May, the park service has had to “handle” eight bears due to human-bear interactions, and they’ve received dozens of reports. Bears are handled based on the level of interaction they have with humans, from minor interference — such as what they did with this bear on Sunday — to major interference which can warrant relocating the bear to the Cherokee National Forest.

The park service, along with the University of Tennessee and the Shenandoah National Park, is currently studying what happens to those bears after they relocate them to another part of the state, and so far, the preliminary data doesn’t bode too well for the bears. It officially starts this summer, but Stiver said they have tested it out with a few bears in previous years.

“Some of the preliminary data that I’ve been sharing with folks is that two-thirds of the bears that are moved die in four months,” Stiver said.

Stiver said the solution is to not get in the situation where the bear has to be moved and follow the bear wise practices. Park service law enforcement was looking into the incident of the people trying to feed the bear peanut butter.

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