Food scarcity, human carelessness drawing bears into cities like Chattanooga

Torri Donley

Black bears this fall are power-eating for winter, and a lack of natural food in their usual habitats could have some of the animals ranging far and wide in search of enough calories to pack on the weight they need to survive cold weather. This is called the time of […]

Black bears this fall are power-eating for winter, and a lack of natural food in their usual habitats could have some of the animals ranging far and wide in search of enough calories to pack on the weight they need to survive cold weather.

This is called the time of “hyperphagia” for black bears, meaning they feel a need to eat continuously, sometimes feeding 24 hours a day, wildlife officials and experts say. That feeding prepares them for the metabolic slowdown known in black bears as “torpor,” a state of dormancy.

But habituation to human food probably helped drive a male black bear with an ear tag into downtown Chattanooga last weekend, only to be shot dead later that same day by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency out of concern for public safety.

The bear had been tagged because of previous human contact, TWRA spokesperson Mime Barnes said.


“Most bears are relocated,” Barnes said Thursday in an email. “This is the desired outcome. TWRA follows strict protocols when dealing with bears.”

But the downtown bear was different.

“This bear was tagged and relocated because it was habituated to human food,” Barnes said. “This is a human issue and not a bear issue. Bears are simply finding easy meals. Humans litter, keep food in unsecured locations and even purposefully feed bears,” she said of human behaviors that prompted the adage, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

“This is always to the detriment of the animal,” Barnes said. “This is what is behind the outcome in this situation.”

(READ MORE: Tennessee is full of animals that can kill you. Here’s a guide to staying alive)

TWRA data on the downtown bear, tagged in Sevier County and relocated to Polk County, shows it had traveled all over Southeast Tennessee last month before it was seen running along Chattanooga streets on Sept. 26.

Barnes said she had no information on the date that bear was tagged or relocated to Polk County, but sightings picked up his trail about 40 miles northwest in central Rhea County in mid-September.

Depending on the bear’s route, it had to cross the Tennessee River, at least, and could possibly have also crossed the Hiwassee River as it made its way west.


*Black bears can be found across most of North America. Black bear habitat varies from the lowlands of Florida to mountains, deserts and subarctic tundra. Black bears can be found in and adjacent to metropolitan areas.

*Colors: Black, brown, blond, rust, or cinnamon. Rare colors are white and blue

*Size: Adults measure about 3 feet at the shoulder and 5 to 6 feet when standing

*Weight: Adults weigh 125-425 pounds or more. Some Tennessee bears can weigh as much as 500 pounds

*Life Span: Approximately 20 years

*Eyesight: Similar to humans

*Sense of Smell: Excellent; can span miles

*Attributes: Very agile; climb trees well; good swimmers; and can run as fast as 35 mph

*A black bear’s diet can include acorns, berries, insects, vegetation, fish and other live prey, and carrion. They mate during May and early June. They hibernate between November and April when food is scarce, though this may vary. Healthy mothers produce one to three cubs.




According to TWRA, the bear was spotted throughout September, apparently starting to work its way south, in the following locations:

— Sept. 16: Evensville in Rhea County

— Sept. 18 or 19: Sale Creek/Graysville area near the Hamilton-Rhea county line

— Sept. 20: New Harmony community near state Highway 30 in Bledsoe County

— Sept. 22: Lewis Chapel area off of State Highway 111 near the Hamilton-Sequatchie county line

— Sept. 23: Big Fork/Signal Mountain area of Marion County

— Sept 26: Lookout Mountain

— Sept 26: Downtown Chattanooga

Barnes said the downtown bear couldn’t be relocated.

Ellijay, Georgia, resident Gerald Hodge is the co-founder with his wife, Connie, of Appalachia Georgia Friends of the Bears, a group that seeks to reduce human-bear conflicts and educate people about coexisting with one of the South’s largest predators.

Hodge said relocation statistics aren’t favorable for bears already habituated to human food because that behavior is learned and passed on.

A study of bears in California’s Yosemite National Park that looked at data on 124 bears relocated between 1989 and 1993 showed an 80% failure rate, finding that the bears tended to return to their home range, according to Hodge. The relocated bear also could find itself in a competing bear’s territory and the vacancy created by the relocated bear was apt to be filled by another bear.

Female bears that are accustomed to getting food from human sources pass along this learned behavior to cubs, creating a second generation of unwanted behavior linked to humans as a food source, according to Hodge.


*Stay on established trails

*Hike in groups during daylight hours only

*Keep children close and in sight at all times

*Make your presence known — call out

*Bears may be more aggressive during droughts, storms and forest fires

*Avoid carcasses. Report dead animals near a trail or campsite to a local wildlife officials

*If an animal approaches, back away to maintain a safe distance

*Taking pets on hiking trails is not advised — they may attract bears or other predators







Bear sightings this fall also could be linked to the search for some natural foods. The supply for black bears was lacking this year in the Chattanooga region, and that also plays into black bear roaming, according to the bear friends group.

Hodge said the food supply, called “mast” by those in the know, has not been the usual quantity or quality this summer, and that means hungry bears are on the prowl for something to eat at the time they must eat the most.

The “soft mast” failure of foods like berries especially hurts yearling black bears that have been on their own since May and June, when their mothers booted them out of the family so she can get started on more offspring with an adult male bear that could pose a danger to male juveniles, according to Hodge.

The “hard mast” failure of foods like acorns and other tree nuts means food in late summer is in short supply, too.

Hodge said East Tennessee also has similar shortages, according to information he collected this season.

“As a result, you are going to see black bears where you normally do not see them looking for food,” Hodge said. “The bears are currently in hyperphagia. Their body is telling them to eat, and eat a lot right now. A 250-pound male has to eat 20,000 calories a day to gain enough weight to go into torpor.”

In the fall, the primary foods that black bears seek are acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts and pecans, according to Hodge.

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Black bears



Some people commenting on social media about the downtown-roaming bear being euthanized questioned why the bear couldn’t have been shot with a tranquilizer dart instead of a bullet and released in a new home.

Barnes of the TWRA said the problems there were two-fold for that bear.

“Tranquilizers don’t have an immediate effect. When a bear is shot with a tranquilizer, they can run some distance in an unpredictable direction,” she said, noting the bear was “highly stressed” from being followed. “This animal was surrounded by people, and this posed a human safety issue.”

The other issue is that the downtown bear was already a known problem. Capturing and releasing it somewhere else doesn’t solve it.

“Relocating a bear that has been habituated to human food or one that poses a threat to human safety just moves this problem to another community,” Barnes said. “This wouldn’t be fair, and it would be irresponsible.”

There are other factors, too.

TWRA must get permission to move bears to other locations, and relocation is also stressful to bears who are released in an area where they don’t know where to find food and water, Barnes said.

Some people posting comments on the downtown bear suggested giving it to a zoo, but Barnes said zoos were not always appropriate for black bears.

For black bears, Barnes said the TWRA’s go-to for help is the Appalachian Bear Rescue in Townsend, Tennessee, but capacity is limited.

“They can only handle so many animals a year, including orphaned and injured bears that have not been habituated to human food,” Barnes said.


Stay alert and 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 feed scraps: Double bag your food when hiking and pack out all food and trash. Leaving scraps, wrappers or even “harmless” items like apple cores teaches bears to associate trails and campsites with food. Don’t burn food scraps or trash in your fire ring or grill.

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 safely: Set up camp away from dense cover and natural food sources. Cook at least 100 yards from your tent. Do not store food, trash, clothes worn when cooking or toiletries in you 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.

Carry bear spray and 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.







Officials say the real problem is human behavior. The bears gain considerable attention when they show up in areas with a large human population like Chattanooga or smaller towns like Athens, Tennessee, where a young bear roamed through town in June.

Barnes is quick to acknowledge that people being upset about the killing of the downtown bear shows how much they care about the animals.

“People wouldn’t be so outraged if they didn’t care,” Barnes said. “What I hope people see is that we wouldn’t have dedicated our education and careers to wildlife if we didn’t hold that same care.”

Barnes and Hodge want people to understand that their actions can lead to bad outcomes for bears, especially as they start feeding the most, and the best step people can take is to get rid of anything that attracts bears and other wild animals.

Hodge said attractants can come in the form of garbage, birdseed, hummingbird feeders, pet food, livestock food or commercial food for wild animals, along with greasy cooking grills, smokers and fish cookers that can teach hungry bears to approach people and homes for food.

According to TWRA, nationwide bear management experience has shown that bears attracted to human food sources, or that are deliberately fed by humans, have a relatively short life.

The survival rate of bears receiving food from people is likely a fraction of that of wild bears that do not have repeated contact with humans. The TWRA said in its information about coexisting with bears that it has found it a challenge “bringing about even moderate changes to human behavior to achieve greater safety for humans and bears.”

While black bear attacks are rare, they are not unheard of.



Just last month, a black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was found eating the body of a 43-year-old Elgin, Illinois, man who had been camping at a remote site in the park, according to recent reports in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

On June 6, 2015, a 16-year-old boy was dragged from his hammock and mauled as he slept at a campsite 4.5 miles from Fontana Lake in North Carolina’s portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The boy sustained multiple injuries before his father managed to drive the bear away.

On April 13, 2006, a 6-year-old Ohio girl was killed, and her mother and 2-year-old brother were injured in a black bear attack in the Cherokee National Forest on Chilhowee Mountain in Polk County, Tennessee. Based on initial information on the attack, officials at the time said the attack by a bear weighing 350-400 pounds came as the family enjoyed the water pooled at the base of Benton Falls, a popular recreation spot on Chilhowee Mountain.

At the bottom of the falls, the bear that might have been stalking the family burst from the woods and grabbed the little boy by the head while the mother and others tried to fend the bear off. The mother was then dragged off the trail as the people fought off the bear. In the chaos, the 6-year-old girl vanished and was found later by emergency officials with a bear hovering over the little girl’s body.

In May 2000, a 50-year-old Cosby, Tennessee, schoolteacher became the first person known to die from a bear attack in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to previously published reports.

Wildlife officials say the link between bears and humans as a source of food becomes far more dangerous once a bear has eaten human flesh and humans themselves can be seen as food.

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at



*Give the bear a clear escape route; do not corner it

*Leave any doors open as you back away from the bear

*Do not lock the bear in a room


*From a safe distance, make loud noises, shout or bang pots and pans together to scare the bear away

*When the bear leaves, remove potential attractants such as garbage, bird seed or pet food.

*Ask neighbors to remove attractants

*Check your yard for bears before letting out your dog


*If you see a bear before it notices you: stand still, don’t approach and enjoy the moment. Then move away quietly in the opposite direction

*If you encounter a bear that is aware of you: don’t run; running may trigger a chase response. Back away slowly in the opposite direction and wait for the bear to leave

*If the bear approaches, follows or charges you, keep reading the sections below



*Stand your ground

*Back away only when the bear stops its approach

*Make yourself look bigger by raising your arms and jacket, and/or standing on a rock or stump

*Yell “Hey bear” loudly

*Get your bear spray out of the holster and into your hand. Remove the safety latch


*Stand your ground

*Try to appear large by holding up your arms and jacket, and/or standing on a rock or stump

*Back away only when the bear stops its approach

*Intimidate the black bear by making yourself look bigger and making noise by waving your arms, shouting, clapping or banging sticks

*Stay together


*Stand your ground and stay together

*Intimidate the black bear by making yourself look bigger and making noise by waving your arms, shouting, clapping or banging sticks

*Prepare to fight or use bear spray


*Stand your ground

*Remain calm

*If you have bear spray, spray it directly at the bear


*Fight back with anything at hand — knife, sticks, rocks, binoculars, backpack or by kicking

*Do not play dead





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