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Wildlife officials euthanized a 350-pound black bear after it tore through a 5-person tent, injuring a mother and her 3-year-old child in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the early hours Sunday.
The duo was camped out with their family at Elkmont Campground, a popular destination for stargazing and firefly watching, when the attack took place. The bear sliced through the tent, and delivered superficial lacerations to the campers’ heads before the child’s father scared it off.
After setting traps, and monitoring the campsite for additional activity, wildlife biologists caught the bear, positively identified it, and euthanized it on Monday.
This report comes just days after the nearby North Carolina branch of the US Forest Service issued warnings to the public about aggressive bear activity in the area. Visitors to the Pisgah, Appalachian, and Nantahala Ranger Districts reported a number of incidents that hinted at peculiar bear behavior. In some cases, bears lingered around campsites despite any attempt to chase them away. In a few cases, visitors spotted them carrying off backpacks.
While attacks like the incident that occurred in the Smokies are rare, food-conditioned bears are a growing concern in highly popular destinations like national parks. Bears that become accustomed to human food may go to greater lengths to find it, potentially putting humans at risk.
According to a National Park Service release, the bear involved in this week’s incident was already exhibiting signs of food conditioning.
“The bear weighed approximately 350 pounds, which is not standard for this time of year, suggesting the bear had previous and likely consistent access to non-natural food sources,” wrote Lisa McInnis, Chief of Resource Management.
The combination of previous food conditioning along with nearby dog food may have sparked the attack, according to the park service.
“In this incident, the bear was likely attracted to food smells throughout the area, including dog food at the involved campsite. It is very difficult to deter this learned behavior and, as in this case, the result can lead to an unacceptable risk to people,” McInnis added.
Once bears are food conditioned, it can be difficult for wildlife managers to successfully deter them, it’s extremely difficult to deter food-oriented bear behavior. Because of the caloric density of many human foods, bears commonly return to human food sources to pack on pounds in a short amount of time. But this pattern draws bears and humans closer together, increasing the odds of conflict.
Bear conflicts like this one are most common in May and June when many natural food sources are still somewhat scarce, driving bears to look for garbage and other alternative food sources. Eliminating opportunities for bears to become food-conditioned could help to reduce aggressive bear encounters and attacks in the future.