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Last week, the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club reported that bear activity is increasing near McAfee Knob along the Appalachian Trail, with bruins wandering the area and coming unnervingly close to people. The reason? Trash.
In a Facebook post, the organization wrote: “Due to the large amount of food garbage left in the McAfee Knob area, the bear population has become overly active.”
McAfee Knob is the most photographed spot along the Appalachian Trail. It sees consistent traffic all year long. An estimated 45,000 people visit this vista each year as dayhikers or en route to Katahdin. Poor trash management could lead to dangerous or even deadly encounters on this well-loved hike for humans and bears alike.
“Not only is leaving food garbage where animals can access it EXTREMELY dangerous to wildlife, it is dangerous to ALL visitors,” the RATC said in a Facebook post. “Littering and improperly storing your food when recreating in the backcountry allows bears to be more attracted to these areas, because they know they can get an easy meal. This causes bears to frequent these areas and be more comfortable around humans, which can lead to deathly situations for the visitors and the bears.” Among the items dumped there: a barbecue grill, which volunteers had to tote out 4 miles.
Littering has had serious consequences for some iconic Appalachian Trail sites over the past few years. In July, the Forest Service announced a two-year closure to camping as well as other restrictions on Max Patch, one year after a crowd of campers left piles of trash on the popular peak. It’s unclear whether McAfee Knob could see user restrictions if littering continues.
The trail network near McAfee Knob has had unsettling bear incidents in the past. In 2015, this region began seeing more human-caused trash and litter, which boosted bear activity. In 2016, one shelter was closed for two months after bear activity began growing in frequency and intensity. Local officials raised $4,000 in order to purchase and install four bear boxes at nearby shelters as a result of the heightened bear activity.
Today, most shelters and established campsites in this area contain bear-resistant cables or boxes. But many hikers are still camping in undesignated spots, and improperly storing their food.
Exacerbating the problem, bears are preparing for winter hibernation, and many of them can be found scrounging for food for up to 20 hours per day. For bears in this hyperphagic stage, an easy meal is too tempting of a proposition to pass up, leading many to start frequenting areas where they’ve been able to snack on garbage before.
Although the state of Virginia is currently home to 5,000-6,000 black bears, the local bear population isn’t impervious to human threats. In fact, the state’s bear populations dipped down to about 1,000 bears in the early 1900s. And, even today, when aggressive bear encounters do take place in this region, the bear is commonly euthanized.
The National Park Service reports that black bear populations are thriving in Virginia, but they face continuous challenges, habitat loss, human encroachment, and poor garbage storage among them.
“For example, when human garbage isn’t stored properly, black bears view it as a food source and may become a problem in residential areas,” the agency says. “These animals may then need to be destroyed by wildlife officials.” The Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club requested that hikers and visitors to the area hang or store their food in a bear resistant container, and follow Leave No Trace principles in order to minimize future bear encounters.