TOWNSEND - Berries are drying up, and acorns are beginning to fall in the Great Smoky Mountains, meaning it’s time for the fall shuffle.
No, it’s not a dance move. It’s when black bears begin their search for food to fatten up for winter.
Sometimes it’s not as easy as it seems. Last year, a desperate search for food sent black bears climbing up balconies and crawling into cars.
"We had a lot of orphan cubs out in the county, especially Blount and Sevier County late last fall and going into the winter because they just couldn’t find food,” said biologist Bill Stiver.
However, Stiver expects this year to have fewer nuisance bears all thanks to a new acorn harvest.
“What I’m hearing from people in the field is we have really, really good Red Oak acorns, Northern Red Oak acorns, good White Oak acorns, good Chestnut Oak acorns, so a much better acorn crop this year,” he said.
Right now, you can find premature acorns, but it will be at the end of September and into October that the ripe ones will be falling heavily.
"When we have good acorn crop we have very few human-bear conflicts in the fall," Stiver said.
The tiny nut has the power to drive an entire population.
"When you have poor mast years and have low reproduction and bears may die,” Stiver explained. “Then it will rebound when you have really good mast years and you have high reproduction and you see those peaks and drops over time.”
With signs of a good mast crop, black bears are already packing on the weight for winter.
“They are putting 3-5 pounds on a day. They are constantly eating,” said Stiver.
While plentiful food sources should help keep bears on their best behavior, Stiver’s job requires managing people as much as wildlife.
“We want the bears to feed naturally, and we also want people to see bears. It’s actually a huge challenge for us," he said.
The park's efforts include some creative new tactics in places you wouldn’t expect.
"There’s some new signs in our restrooms, in the stalls. We are trying to find any way we can to reach people,” Stiver said.
As park visitation increases into October, their busiest month of the year, biologists are hoping that big problems be kept at bay, thanks to a tiny blessing.
Food also plays a large role in bear pregnancy. Bears breed during the month of July. Depending on the healthiness and weight of the female, she may or may not get pregnant. With a promising crop, Stiver says to expect many cubs in the spring.
(© 2016 WBIR)