Cades Cove stands as a sanctuary for the iconic black bears of the Great Smoky Mountains. Inside the National Park a mother bear and her cubs can roam free of the threat of a hunter's deadly rifle.
However, the 1,500 black bears that live in the Park are hunted furiously and sometimes fatally by millions of visitors eager to shoot a Kodak moment.
"Of course people come here to see bears and we do want to provide that opportunity," said Dana Soehn, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "People need to stay 50 yards away from wildlife. The really good photographers have fabulous equipment and honor that space. Every year we do have people who push that limit and really what they're doing is causing harm to that bear."
A combination of visitor photographs and food puts bears at ease around people.
"What we tell people is a fed bear is a dead bear," said Soehn. "Bears that become habituated will quickly depend on people for food and become problem bears that pose a threat to themselves and others."
Tourists recently fed a female black bear and her three cubs at Cades Cove and it quickly developed into a nuisance. Biologists tried to break the bear's behavior and scare it back into the wild to no avail.
"Our biologists take several steps to try to keep bears wild. They will make all types of noise, use air horns, and shoot small fireworks towards the animals. They will also shoot it with paint balls and other things to mark the bear and scare it away," said Soehn. "This bear and its three cubs just kept coming back, even walking down the center line weaving in and out of cars looking for a handout. Now the bears will be caught and relocated as a family. The last thing we want is a bear getting hit by a car. That is one of the main causes of bear deaths in the Park."
On Thursday biologists successfully captured the mother bear and its cubs. The animals were moved 40 miles away to an isolated area in the eastern portion of the Park. Many times bears that are relocated are taken out of the Park to the Cherokee National Forest where hunting is allowed.
"We try everything possible before relocating bears, but we have to be concerned about visitor safety. We relocate usually about five bears a year," said Soehn.
When bears become so comfortable they repeatedly approach people and someone is injured, no other forests will adopt the bear and rangers are forced to kill the animal. This occurred in May 2010 with a bear on Laurel Falls Trail that was subsequently nicknamed "Laurel" by Facebook users who unsuccessfully attempted to convince the Park not to euthanize the animal.
Laurel's legacy is two-fold on the Laurel Falls Trail. The Park placed signs with photos of the animal with the headline "Did you kill this bear?" to educate visitors to avoid feeding animals. After Laurel's death, volunteers also organized and began doing patrols seven days a week to pick up trash and watch for bears. The volunteers also work to make sure the visitors keep a safe distance from any animals along the heavily-traveled trail.
Even bears that want to steer clear get cornered by the cameras. This week Country Magazine caused an online fuss with an article from a Baltimore woman who bragged about bravely approaching an angry mother bear and her cubs at Cades Cove.
The person wrote, "The terrified mama shoved her cub in the direction of the nearest tree. And that's when I sprang into action." She continued by writing, "I crept closer and closer to the danger zone in search of photographic treasure" while the agitated bear hissed and warned the writer to stay away.
The article created such an online backlash that Country Magazine retracted the piece and replaced it with a link to the National Park's page on black bear safety.
"We depend on our visitors to keep these bears wild. You can still get a wonderful photograph and watch the bears out in the fields and in the trees and enjoy that moment without trying to get closer and causing that bear to lose its natural fear of humans."
Keeping a safe distance will prevent exposure that takes a picture perfect moment and develops it into a dangerous situation for visitors and our beautiful wild black bears. It also is the law. The park can arrest and fine visitors who intentionally get within 50 yards (150 feet) and disturb or displace black bears.
Story Note: The video of bears in this story was obtained entirely within the rules of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While 10News reporter Jim Matheny was parked along Hyatt Lane in Cades Cove, the animals emerged from the brush. Matheny was standing directly beside his vehicle ready to get inside for safety in case the bears became protective or aggressive. At no point did he attempt to approach or pursue the animals. His camera has a large enough lens to shoot relatively close-up shots while remaining a safe distance away from the animals. He also made no attempt to feed the animals. This behavior is clearly visible in the raw video clip of the bears.