Photo of two petting bear in Gatlinburg highlights importance of bear safety

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WVLT) - Bears in East Tennessee are not few and far between; therefore, it is essential that those who live or visit the area know what to do when they encounter the animals.

A photo circulating social media of what not to do when seeing a bear in the Smokies has again highlighted the importance of bear safety.

A woman staying at the Quality Inn Creekside in Gatlinburg captured the photo of what appears to be two people sticking their hands out and petting a bear.

In the post on social media, the woman said, “This is why bears get killed. I can’t believe she did this. We had to tell her to stop over and over again.”

She told WVLT News that the hotel workers were alerted and spoke with the people in the photo.

Bear being pet in Gatlinburg
Bear being pet in Gatlinburg(Misty Chrismon)

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesperson Matt Cameron saw the photo and said that the bear had clearly been intentionally fed by people before and was hoping for a handout. He also said the actions of the people were endangering the bear.

“While the folks in these photos do not appear to be feeding it, they are further endangering it by making it feel comfortable approaching people,” Cameron said. “At some point, many food-conditioned bears become aggressive and cause harm to humans.”

However, Cameron added that the pair was not doing anything illegal.

With around 1,500 black bears in the Appalachian Mountains area in East Tennessee and North Carolina, what should you do when you see one in the future?

It is important to remember that while bears may seem cute and approachable, they are still wild animals and should be respected. They can also be wild and unpredictable. Therefore, it is illegal to willfully approach a bear within 50 yards in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Approaching a bear at any distance that disturbs or displaces it is also illegal.

The Tennessee state website also states never to feed bears, “The age-old adages: GARBAGE KILLS BEARS and A FED BEAR IS A DEAD BEAR could not be truer,” the website reads. The problem stems from habituation or making a bear comfortable around humans, like what can be seen in the photo. Doing this can be deadly to a bear, the website states.

According to Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials, “park rangers issue citations for littering, feeding bears, and for improper food storage. These citations can result in fines of up to $5,000 and jail sentences lasting up to six months.” Currently, there are currently no laws against feeding (intentionally or accidentally) bears in Tennessee.

In 2000, due to nuisance calls regarding black bear interactions in Sevier County, regulations that prohibit people to feed black bears or leave food or garbage in a manner that attracts the animals were created. However, they only apply to a certain area of Gatlinburg.

“The regulations only apply to a 6 sq. mi. area of Gatlinburg and were intended to create a buffer zone with hopes that bears would be deterred from going further into the city if they couldn’t get into garbage,” Cameron said. “Unfortunately, outside of the GSMNP and this buffer zone in Gatlinburg, there aren’t any prohibitions against feeding bears in Tennessee.”

Bears that become comfortable in heavily-populated areas may begin making contact with humans, prompting state officials to intervene and relocate or euthanize the animals.

According to officials, TWRA wildlife officers in the region respond from 500 to 1,000 annual calls in regards to bears in Sevier County annually.

“The overwhelming desire to have a close encounter with a black bear is strangely more powerful than common sense,” said Sgt. David Sexton, a wildlife officer who’s spent over two decades in Sevier Co. “Many people intentionally feed bears with little regard for the dire consequences to the bears and humans they leave behind.”

Wildlife officials said they don’t euthanize bears based on personal feelings; they use the black bear conflict matrix, a state list of directions on how they treat bear encounters.

“We refer to what’s called the black bear conflict matrix, and it’s a chart that was designed by bear professionals from our state and other states,” Cameron explained. “It guides our personnel on how to deal with nuisance bears.”

For example, once a bear comes in contact with a human in a people-populated area, like a residential neighborhood, Cameron said the TWRA had no other option but to euthanize it. The entire matrix can be seen here:

The bear matrix guides wildlife officials on how to treat bear encounters in the state.
The bear matrix guides wildlife officials on how to treat bear encounters in the state.(TWRA)

The GSMNP has a list of steps you can take to protect bears; view those here. Park officials also recommend reporting visitors that break bear guidelines, which you can do here.

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