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Relocated black bear numbers soar in Big South Fork

7:12 PM, May 6, 2013   |    comments
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  • Photo courtesy Big South Fork NRRA

Scientists say black bears are making a strong comeback on the plateau in Tennessee thanks to a family tree with roots in the Great Smoky Mountains.

USGS research ecologist and UT adjunct professor Joe Clark says the bears' current success started with an experiment a couple of decades ago.

"Well, you know bears were here a long time before we were," said Clark.  "They are an important part of the ecosystem and we have worked to replace this extricated species."

In the 1990s with almost every black bear hunted or developed out of existence on the Plateau, Clark and others attempted to transplant bears from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Big South Fork during the summer.  The bears would be kept in cages to become acclimated to their new environments, but would typically turn-tail and head hundreds of miles home.

"If you just turn a bear loose, they are fully capable of coming back.  We know a few of them did.  One was hit by a car near Vonore," said Clark. 

Some relocated bears took a route through downtown Knoxville to reach their home in the Smokies.  In 1997, a large black bear was spotted hiding in the trees outside Baptist Hospital in Knoxville.  Wildlife workers tranquilized the animal and returned it to the wild.

In January 1996 the scientists tried a new method of moving bears during hibernation with their cubs during the cold of winter.  Archive footage of WBIR's coverage of the relocation attempt showed workers holding a man by his feet to lower him upside down into a bear's den.

"We tranquilized in her den and then pulled her from her den.  Yeah, she is breathing," said UT research assistant Rick Eastridge in the 1996 footage.

In all, scientists placed 14 female adult bears and 16 cubs on the Plateau.

"If she has got those cubs, the maternal instinct overrides the homing instinct.  If something happens to the cubs and they die, she will head back home to the Smokies," said Clark.  "We did a lot of work in those days, but really did not know how much success we had with the reintroduction program."

Last summer TWRA set out to count the bears in Big South Fork by setting some delicious bait surrounded by barbed wire.

"Normally we use doughnuts or some sort of pastry product," said Clark.  "We'll put that in several locations on a grid and the barbed wire will catch hair from the animals as they enter the area where the bait is located."

Barbed wire grabs hair samples so scientists can test DNA to figure out how many separate black bears stopped by to grab a bite.  Then the DNA results will determine how many of the bears are animals that were previously trapped, tagged, and released.

"By using those numbers, we can do an estimate of the total bear population.  We really were expecting 50 to 100 animals, but it turned out to be quite a bit more than that."

Estimates now say 254 black bears call the tested area of Big South Fork home.  The DNA samples also traced almost all of the bear population to the group of females and cubs relocated in the 1990s.

"The genetics work indicates most of the bears there are the result of our transplants. I'm thrilled. Bear reintroductions have been tried and most of the time they're not successful.  This was a real success with a real high population growth rate," said Clark.

Clark now says the experiment in 1996 may be what ultimately restores the black bear population throughout the Plateau.

"There's a very big habitat for the animals where they used to live.  As one of the top members of the ecosystem, it is important to restore them," said Clark.

Hunting black bears remains illegal in Big South Fork, but TWRA said it will continue to monitor the bear population and reexamine its stance in a few years.

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