Cohabitation with black bears is a way of life for residents near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, this year the amount of animals throughout Sevier County is cause for pause.
"We had a pretty good 'bear jam' down the street on Veterans Boulevard. People were stopping traffic and taking pictures. We call our school mascot the cub or the 'little bears,' but we don't normally see real bears down in this area," said Harriet Berrier, principal of Sevierville Primary School. "It was a mom and three cubs. They are hunting for food."
Berrier said the bears never came on school property, but teachers were prepared to take cautionary measures.
"Our teachers all have radios and walkie-talkies on the playground. We told them to just be aware we had some visitors in the area. They never had to interrupt recess and the children were all perfectly safe," said Berrier. "We have the entire playground area fenced in and the bears were far away in a field behind our property. If they came closer we could have moved recess inside."
Black bears routinely roam into nearby cities like Gatlinburg when food is in short supply. Two weeks ago a bear broke into a Gatlinburg candy shop. However, this year bears are venturing farther away from the mountains than usual due to a year-long food shortage.
"Bears unfortunately this year have had a double whammy," said Nancy Gray, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "Right now the acorns and fall mast bears feed on has been very poor. Earlier this year there was also a shortage of the soft mast like berries, cherries, and fruits. So the bears have been hungry since the summer and now they are really aggressive, traveling far out of the park into communities in search of food."
Biologists with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency said the food shortage has hit Sevier and Blount counties the hardest. One indication of hunger is the amount of animals harvested by hunters.
"When animals are hungry, they are more active and will travel more," said Dan Gibbs, TWRA biologist. "That leads to them being harvested in greater numbers by hunters. Right now 37 percent of all the bears harvested in the entire state this year are in Blount and Sevier Counties."
Gibbs said a combination of larger black bear populations in recent years and the current food shortage will inevitably lead to more encounters between animals and humans.
"People who live in Blount County, Sevier County, and even Knox County need to be aware that bears are roaming looking for food. Wherever they find food, they will keep coming back to that spot. People need to eliminate any possible food source that will attract bears by bringing in trash cans, bring in grills or clean them really well, and don't leave pet food outside," said Gibbs. "Bird feeders also attract bears. That mostly helps birds during the winter, so get rid of them for the time being. In about six weeks or so the bears will decide to take their long nap and you can put bird feeders out again when they are hibernating."
As for Sevierville Primary School, the bears have remained at a safe distance and delivered teachers a ready-made lesson plan.
"Our teachers will talk to students about why the bears are coming down and what they are doing here due to the food shortage. So we make a learning experience out of it. It's fun and kind of exciting," said Berrier.