As spring blooms in Tennessee, the state's fast-growing population of black bears comes out of hibernation and begins foraging for food, giving people a chance to see these fascinating creatures up close.
But try to make sure it's not too close, said Daryl Ratajczak, resident bear expert at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in Nashville and chief of the wildlife division. "There are going to be bears all over the place because we had a record year for cubs," he said.
Wildlife officials believe Tennessee's bear population is higher today than at any time in the past 150 years, with about 3,500 to 5,000 black bears, including about 1,800 in parks, said Brian Ripley, a TWRA manager.
And the population is spreading beyond the Great Smoky Mountains, with bears now plentiful on the Cumberland Plateau and especially in the Big South Fork River and Recreation Area north of Cookeville and Crossville.
The bears have grown so much in the Cumberland Plateau that wildlife officials are considering opening the area for bear hunting.
The expansion west means more bears have made their homes on the edges of Middle Tennessee, closer to Nashville, said Ed Carter, executive director of the Wildlife Resources Agency.
"At any time it's possible to have a bear going through any part of the state," Carter said. "We had one we called Running Bear that went through three different states, and then through several Middle Tennessee counties."
One was caught outside a major shopping mall in Memphis last fall, Ratajczak said. It had come into the state through Fayette County after traveling through parts of Alabama and northern Mississippi.
"Usually, we leave them alone unless they start getting into trouble," he said. "This one was getting into Dumpsters, so we tranquilized it and moved it to the mountains in East Tennessee."
That growth in bears prompted TWRA to conduct a survey this year, which found most Tennesseans support having bears in the state. Although it can still be rare to see a bear, the TWRA also has increased efforts to make sure people know how to be safe if they do encounter one.
"If you see one, enjoy the moment, because it doesn't happen very often," he said. "But it's important to keep them at a distance," said Ratajczak, who moved to Tennessee in 1997 just to get involved with bears.
Plateau sees influx
Dan Hicks, information and education coordinator for the Wildlife Resources Agency's Region III in Crossville, said part of the boom in the Cumberland Plateau's bear population came from a relocation program by the state and federal government in 1996, in which 14 bear sows were captured in the Smokies and released in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.
Hicks was part of that program, and he tracked the relocated bears for several years after they were turned loose in their new habitat to study their behavior.
"All the females that had cubs or were pregnant stayed in the park," he said.
But not all of the expansion on the Plateau came from those relocated bears, Ratajczak said. Some have come from East Tennessee, and others have moved down from the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky.
"The population is growing because they have been protected," he said.
Bears in state and national parks are off limits to hunters, and there also are some bear preserves in the Smokies.
Some have ventured out, though, Hicks said.
"We've had a bear hit on Interstate 40 in Cookeville, and there was a 300-pound bear on I-40 in Cumberland County."
While most of the males roam outside their dens during the winter, the females and their new cubs will begin emerging in early April, according to the experts.
"They will be coming out any day now," said Dana Dodd of Nashville, president of the board of the Townsend, Tenn.-based nonprofit Appalachian Bear Rescue center.
Tennessee's largest populations of the big, fuzzy critters are in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee.
Bears normally are shy around humans and prefer to run the other way when they see, hear or smell a human, Ratajczak said.
Although rare, bear-human interactions sometimes go horribly wrong.
There have been two fatalities from black bear attacks in East Tennessee since 2000, and bears have become a nuisance in many areas where they've encountered food left out by humans, Carter said.
"Statistically, a fatality or even a bear attack is very rare because black bears generally are pretty adapted to people and don't cause problems," he said. "They are generally shy, so if you make enough noise they are going to move off before you get there."
"We're removing natural habitat, so wildlife is getting displaced and bears are getting closer and closer to people," he said. "Then the bears get acclimated to people, and if there is ever an injury to a person, the offending animal has to be euthanized. Sometimes it's not the bear's fault. But once the encounter has occurred, it puts us in an awkward situation."
Hunters bag 583
Hunting is allowed in some of Tennessee's eastern counties, and last year, 583 bears were taken by hunters - a state record.
Some farmers, hunters and others have complained about the growing population in the north Cumberland Plateau and requested that area to be opened to hunters, as well.
To begin consideration of that idea, the TWRA conducted a Tennessee Black Bear Public Opinion Survey statewide this year, which found that bears are quite popular - even in areas where they don't normally exist.
"The bears are very important," Dodd said. "They bring a lot of tourism to the state."
The study found 87 percent of Tennesseans support having bears in the state, while only 6 percent oppose them. It also found that 54 percent believe that the current bear population is about right, while 23 percent think it is too low, and 5 percent believe it is too high.
To gauge public opinion in the north Cumberland Plateau area, particularly with regard to the possibility of a hunting season, the wildlife agency has scheduled two public hearings next week. They will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the York Institute cafeteria in Jamestown and 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Pickett County Courthouse in Byrdstown.
Information about the hearings can be found on the wildlife agency's website at news.tn.gov/node/8551.
State officials and hunters defend the idea of hunting as a way of managing the bear populations in the state, although whether the north Cumberland Plateau has enough of the animals yet to allow hunting remains to be determined, agency officials said.
But hunting was one of the reasons for the relocation of the bears to the area, Hicks said.
"We put those bears up there to grow the population to hunt," he said. "That was one of the goals of the project. We're getting complaints now, so we know they have expanded. I don't think we would want to put an estimate on how many are there right now, though."
The agency could take as long as two years to make a decision on opening the area to hunting, Hicks said.
Meanwhile, bears are thriving, and Appalachian Bear Rescue, near Great Smoky Mountains National Park, continues to take in orphaned and injured cubs and nurse them back to health, Dodd said.
The rescue group "does not have an opinion" on the idea of bear hunting, Dodd said, even though the concept is controversial.
"Our mission is to rescue the cubs and raise them until they are strong enough to put back into the wild," she said.
"We also do a lot of black bear education with school groups and people of all ages, to help people understand bears and live with them."
The group now has 35 cubs in residence, she said. Human contact is strictly limited so they don't become acclimated to people.
Keeping people safe around bears is a key goal of the rescue group and the wildlife agency.
"Most people say they want bears in their areas, but not in their backyards," the agency's Carter said.
"And the best way to make sure they stay out of people's yards is to make sure there is no human or pet food there for them to eat."
And for those who hunt the animals, the payoff comes in pounds of bear meat - as well as mounted trophies and even bearskin rugs, he said.