The Great Smoky Mountains National Park continues to endure an emotional online backlash after rangers euthanized a bear that bit a visitor at Laurel Falls.
This week thousands of Facebook users who gave the euthanized bear the nickname "Laurel" have aimed scathing criticism at the park's policy of euthanizing any bear that injures a visitor. Some angry user comments have conveyed a desire to boycott the park.
Yet experts who work with bears say taking the frustration out on the park is a misguided exercise that ignores the extraordinary efforts of the park to protect bears.
Did You Kill This Bear?
This weekend visitors on Laurel Falls Trail encountered a couple of new signs that say, "Did you kill this bear?" The signs explain the circumstances leading up to the recent bear attack, blaming the incident on visitors who knowingly fed the black bear and made it aggressively approach humans as a food source.
"It is unfortunate. We don't enjoy this, I can promise you that," said Kim Delozier, supervisory wildlife biologist for the park. "We want to make sure this negative situation becomes an opportunity for education. We're going to focus our efforts to make sure this never happens again and we're going to be very diligent to make people understand not to feed bears."
The sign also asks anyone who sees visitors feeding bears to immediately contact park rangers.
"People have got to understand these are wild animals and we cannot always predict what they are going to do. It is their home and their habitat," said Delozier. "There is some human instinct that people think they have to get close to a wild animal. It puts them at risk and it also puts the life of the bear in jeopardy, too."
Delozier said although the blame for many encounters lies with humans, the animals are the ones that must ultimately pay the price.
"The behavior gets worse and worse until eventually somebody will get hurt. When it gets to that point, our options are very few. We cannot allow a bear to be in the population that has a history of injuring people. We have to take serious steps and that action not only protects the people, but it also protects other bears in the future," said Delozier. "We do the best job that we can. We're not perfect in what we do. But ten years ago on Friday we had a bear kill a lady and that was probably the toughest day of my career."
Misconceptions about Laurel
At the Appalachian Bear Rescue (ABR) in Townsend, curator Lisa Stewart helps nurture several bears who were orphaned or injured regain their health in order to be later released into wild. This week Stewart received several calls from people asking if the ABR would accept "Laurel" in order to save the animal from death.
"ABR never would have been asked to take that bear because with a history of biting a human, there's no way to put the bear back in the wild," said Stewart.
Stewart said the park rangers have received an unfair level of criticism from people who are unaware of their year-round efforts to protect bears.
"We just admitted three young bears, three yearlings from the park rangers. The bears were malnourished and at one-year-old were only around 18 to 19 pounds. They were in picnic areas looking for food and the rangers saved them before it turned into another Laurel situation." Stewart added, "Humans may have started feeding them after seeing them in their dire condition and wanting to help out. That does not help. Feeding bears kills bears."
"Some of the things we do in the park are far above probably what you've heard any other bear manager do," said Delozier. "We have taken bears to the UT Vet School and had plates put in if they have a broken leg. We've actually taken bears to the vet school that have broken teeth and had teeth removed. We have had root canals done. I don't know any other bear manager in North America that takes bears to a facility to take care of its teeth."
Stewart said many people also incorrectly assumed Laurel was a cub that was young enough in its developmental stages to be rehabilitated.
"Laurel was not a cub. At 60 pounds she was probably three years old or at least two years old," said Stewart. "Of course we are devastated anytime we lose a bear and so is the park. It is a very emotional topic, but the backlash is misguided. I am glad these people are so compassionate about our bears, but instead of asserting blame at rangers or at the park's policy, people need to direct their energy to educate others, to respect our bears, and to not feed our bears."
More bears and visitors, but fewer problems
Delozier and volunteers with Appalachian Bear Rescue hosted an educational session at the Knoxville Zoo on Saturday about black bears. Delozier said the park has made great strides in his 33 years on the job to reduce problems with black bears.
"Twenty and thirty years ago we had a much smaller bear population with just a few hundred bears, but there were a lot more reports of nuisance bears," said Delozier. "A few decades ago we moved a lot of bears. We moved around 100 bears in one particular year, but what was happening is bears were losing their fear of people through nighttime garbage."
Delozier said today's black bear population of 1,600 bears in the park is one of the highest densities in North America.
"Then you couple that population with around nine million people and the amount of garbage that they bring into the park. Those scenarios together mean the chances of a bear encounter are fairly high," said Delozier. "When people come here they are coming into bear country and we are the visitor. We are on their turf and so we have certain responsibilities."
Delozier attributes the greatest strides in reducing human conflicts with bears the last few decades to a commitment to dispose of garbage appropriately.
"Working on garbage is not really a glorious thing to do, but it is very effective and very important to keep these animals afraid of people. The number of bears we have to euthanize now compared to 20 or 30 years ago is far less. We probably euthanize less than one bear a year. The number of injuries we have is far less than what it was many years ago when we had an average of six or seven injuries a year. It is actually a much safer environment now with us keeping food and garbage away from bears."
A female black bear weighing approximately 60 pounds bit and punctured a visitor's foot who allowed the animal to get too close while he was photographing the animal at Laurel Falls. Park officials said the bear approached the injured man as well as several other people during the week. The park had already placed warning signs along the Laurel Falls Trail after receiving reports that visitors had fed a bear. Wildlife biologists captured the bear and spent more than a week ensuring they had captured the correct bear before euthanizing it.
Many Facebook users expressed a belief that the park had alternatives to destroying the bear. Members of the group Save the black bear in the Smokies from dumb tourists nicknamed the captured animal "Laurel" and unsuccessfully pleaded for the park not to destroy the animal.