Bears Can Live With People…People Can’t Live With Bears

By Jeff Ferrell
PIGEON FORGE, TN–Nature photographer Bill Lea has a simple position when it comes to interaction between people and Black Bears.

“Bears can live with people. It’s too often people who can’t live with bears.”

Lea spends a lot of his time taking pictures of Black Bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He also has a bear sanctuary in Minnesota aimed at educating people about the animals. He was one of the lecturers for the first day of Wilderness Wildlife Week.

Lea said that people often shoot bears or have wildlife officials euthanize them when they really don’t pose a threat. As more and more people move into bear habitat, encounters with them will increase, he said, but if people understand bear behavior a little better they won’t be as quick to have the animals put down.

The biggest motivator for bears coming around homes or more urban environments is typically hunger, he said, and a nose that is 15 times more powerful than a human’s. They may smell food that’s been carried in a container that was left outside or food left in outbuildings. They may also come for food left for pets, or food left out with the idea of feeding smaller wild animals–even birds.

A person’s favorite fruit tree in their backyard may be a bear’s favorite food source, and they also sometimes check out piles of firewood for bugs and other grubs, he said. And, of course, people in bear country don’t always store their waste in bearproof containers or properly dispose of food they eat at picnics or other outdoor events.

Any of those things can lead to a bear encounter that’s too close for some people’s comfort, even though he said a Black Bear is more likely to flee than attack unless it’s startled or has no other option. Hikers don’t need to wear bells when they’re out in the woods, he said, but it helps to talk–especially when there’s another background noise like a running stream.

He also cautioned that people often misinterpret a common bear posture as a threat when it really isn’t. “A lot of people think if a bear stands up on its hind feet, that is an attack posture but that’s just not the case,” he said. They often stand up because they’re curious, he said–trying to track down the source of a smell or a sound.

That powerful sense of smell is the one they rely on the most–the way most people rely on their vision. In fact, he said, despite years of observation scientists are still not sure how good a bear’s long-distance vision really is. “It seems like it’s constantly changing,” he said. “The bottom line is we don’t know.”

In his experience, bears also display more intelligence than they’re given credit for. One bear he was photographing not only reached out to snag a log she used as a bridge over a pond, she pressed it into the shore to make it steadier.

“This is an animal using a tool to accomplish a task,” he said. Perhaps Lea’s best news for the audience is that he believes the park’s (Great Smoky Mountain National) bear population is increasing. They’re seen less on the Cades Cove loop, he said, because people have learned to curb behavior that attracts them like leaving food or trash out, and because the park has changed some practices as well. –AP