Keeping Bears Wild — Or Trying — At National Parks

May 11, 2016
Originally published on May 20, 2016 4:46 pm

There are about 1,600 black bears and roughly 10.7 million people in Great Smoky Mountains National Park every year, and Ryan Williamson is responsible for the safety of both.

Williamson is a wildlife biologist at the park. He's an expert in bear behavior and practically a field medic for wildlife. He can rattle off a list of anesthetizing drug concoctions that would make your tongue twist and your head spin.

But sometimes — usually with a deep, heavy sigh — he plays traffic controller. Recently, he pulled his pickup truck off the side of one of the park's many narrow, shaded roadways and stepped out into a line of congested traffic.

"Keep moving," he says, waving traffic forward. "You got to have all four tires off the road to stop."

In the parlance of the park, this is what's called a "bear jam." Outside of the winter months (when the park's bears are hibernating) it's a regular occurrence at Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A driver sees a bear off the side of the road, stops to take a picture, and the traffic starts to back up like a clot.

It's annoying if you're in a hurry or if you have to manage traffic, but there's an implicit understanding from the park's employees. "This is the highlight of someone's trip," Williamson says. "I want everybody that comes to this park to see a bear."

The people lined up on this roadside are seeing a sow black bear and her two tiny cubs, each the size of a football. "This is safe viewing distance, in my opinion," Williamson says. "I say safe viewing distance is as far as you can throw a rock because, you know, we say 50 yards, but John Q. Public has no idea how far 50 yards is."

And even when John Q. Public does, he can't help but get a little closer. He wants to get a better picture or a #bearselfie. It happens.

These bears are what wildlife biologists call habituated bears — ones that don't run when they see or smell people because they've gotten so accustomed to us.

This happens all the time at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and it puts people like Williamson in a tough spot. On one hand, his mission is to provide these types of viewing opportunities to the people that visit the park, and on the other, he has to protect the bears.

Bear Management

Bill Stiver, a wildlife biologist and head of the wildlife division at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, says there are a lot of habituated bears here.

In terms of wildlife management, another classification is wild bears — bears that are afraid and run from humans — and at the other end of the spectrum, food-conditioned bears. From a management standpoint, food-conditioned bears are very hard to manage. "Once that behavior gets ingrained, it's really, really hard to change," Stiver says.

They can move the animal away from the place it's come to identify as a food source, but bears are smart. Stiver says they typically have to move a bear at least 40 miles from the food source or it will find its way back. That's tough to do in a place like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, because it's surrounded by people and towns.

If moving the bear doesn't work, or it's not an option, there's really only one other thing they can do. Stiver says they usually have to do it once or twice a year.

"I don't take any pleasure in euthanizing a bear," he says. "I feel like we fail if we either have to move a bear or we have to euthanize it. Somewhere in that process, we've failed. And I don't mean we as just me. I mean we as people, because we're getting too close to it. We're stripping it of that natural, wild behavior."

On the roadside in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, more traffic stops and slows to take pictures of the sow black bear and her two tiny cubs. They've moved closer to the road and the line of whispering, pointing people.

"This is how habituation happens," Williamson says, watching the sow nose a rock aside. "She's just tolerant of us right now." She doesn't even spook when a frustrated motorist honks his horn at the car in front of him. Her two cubs seem oblivious too, as they stumble over downed logs and try to keep pace with their slow-moving mother.

"They're learning right now," Williamson says. They're learning to not be afraid of humans, which puts them on that slippery slope to becoming problem bears. "It's a very difficult window to try to capture, because neither one can behave themselves," he says. Humans can't help but get too close to bears or drop food crumbs on the ground; bears can't help but eat the crumbs.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park tries its best to slow that by educating people. There are signs on the roads telling people to keep their distance from animals and others that explicitly say, "Do not feed the wildlife." But it's impossible to educate nearly 11 million people, so wildlife biologists also try to educate bears.

Back Into The Wild

The Appalachian Bear Rescue is a rescue center for young black bears near Townsend, Tenn., just outside of the Great Smoky Mountains. It's a nonprofit that takes injured and orphaned black bear cubs or yearlings and nurses them back to health.

"Our mission is to get them back to the wild in the shortest possible period of time in captivity as we can," says Dana Dodd, the center's president.

The longer they stay in captivity, the more likely it is they will get used to the people, and Dodd says they can't allow that. It's a tough thing to do, she says, especially with the youngest bear cubs that come in. They're so small and underdeveloped that they can't walk on their own or lap water. "Their neck isn't strong enough to hold up their head, just like a little baby," Dodd says.

Those animals have to be bottle-fed. Dodd describes that as the most dangerous time for the animal, because it has to be in close contact with humans.

"If that cub has to bond and it bonds with a person, it is near certain that cub will not live," Dodd says. "You'll kill it with kindness."

Williamson and the National Park Service come in at the end of this process — the release. That's why Williamson is here. He's picking up two female yearlings that have been nursed back to health and is releasing them back in the park. Both were found in nearby towns before being brought here, so it's fair to say that both are somewhat accustomed to people.

From Williamson's standpoint, the release process is an opportunity to change that.

He readies a tranquilizing drug concoction and goes to retrieve one of the bears. Every bear that gets released back into the wild goes through a preparation process — sleeping (and snoring) through it.

It gets an ear tag and a GPS collar. Blood tests and skin tests are conducted. These are all done so that biologists can have a better understanding of the bear's health and habits. The GPS collar can alert wildlife biologists that the bear is in a town or a place it shouldn't be.

Williamson and Coy Blair, the head curator at the rescue center, get back with one of the bears in a cage. They carry it into a closed shed with Dodd and a team of veterinarians from the University of Tennessee to get the bear ready as quickly as possible.

This process is humane and necessary, but there's no way around it: If you're a bear, this process is not fun. Williamson says that's kind of the point.

"Some people think that all I do is punish bears that have bad behavior," he says. "Well, yes, but I'm trying to fix that bad behavior. So in my eyes, I'm saving bears, not punishing them."

Both of the yearlings are put in metal cages in the back of his truck and are monitored until they're awake. Williamson drives into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a few miles down a narrow dirt road. He stops near a parked car and calls to a guy who's taking pictures of a nearby creek, asking him to come stand near the truck.

"I want humans to be present so when the bear turns around and looks, sees what just happened, I want them to see us and be like, I don't ever want to experience that again," he says. He wants that bear to associate its negative experience with humans.

Williamson's intern, Brandon Garcia, climbs on to the top of the cage and lifts the metal gate. The black bear yearling stumbles out, pauses to look at the photographer, and then leaps off the tailgate and dashes into the brush. The second yearling runs off even faster.

Hopefully, Williamson says, he'll never have to see either of those bears again. They'll steer as clear of humans as they can.

He loads back into the truck and starts driving back down the dirt road when the radio squawks with a report of people feeding a bear. Williamson sighs as the radio traffic continues. He can educate all of the bears he wants here, but he can't educate all of the people.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Take about 1,600 bears, then some 11 million people in area a bit more than 800 square miles and you have the situation facing wildlife biologists at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As the Park Service celebrates its centennial, we're looking at some of the jobs that are done behind the scenes at national parks. NPR's Nathan Rott tagged along with a wildlife biologist to see how challenging the day-to-day can be.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Traffic jams - we all know them more than we'd like. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park though, on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, it's a different kind of jam.

Bear jam.

RYAN WILLIAMSON: We can't be hanging out too long.

ROTT: Yes, bear jam. That's the official title for it here, as in...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Dude, there's a bear by the road. Everyone stop and take a picture.

ROTT: Because let's face it, it's a bear by road.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

ROTT: Or in this case, three black bears, a mom and two cubs.

WILLIAMSON: They're little, tiny guys. Yeah, no bigger than a football.

ROTT: That voice belongs to Ryan Williamson, a wildlife biologist by the park, a job that requires watching people as much as it does watching bears because he's responsible for the safety of both.

WILLIAMSON: This is safe viewing distance, in my opinion. I say safe viewing distance as far as you can throw a rock because, you know, we say 50 yards but John Q. Public has no idea how far 50 yards is.

ROTT: Even when John Q. Public does, a lot of times he just can't help but get a little closer. >>WILLIAMSON: Want to get the selfie.

ROTT: Really?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah.

ROTT: It happens all of the time. Google it - bear selfie - you'll see. The reason you don't hear about it is because most of the time, John Q. Public doesn't get mauled - most of the time. Stuff does happen.

Just this week, a man was bit in the leg by a bear at Great Smoky while he was sleeping. Now, it's hard to know why that happened. But you can look at bear behavior for an idea. To explain, let's leave this roadside for a minute to get a little bear behavior 101 with our host...

BILL STIVER: I'm Bill Stiver. I'm a wildlife biologist at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

ROTT: OK, so Stiver says when it comes to behaviors, there are three broad types of bears. the first is the best, the most natural, what you'd call a wild bear.

STIVER: And what I mean by wild is one that sees or smells people and runs.

ROTT: The next is a habituated bear, one that doesn't run because it's gotten so used to seeing and smelling people that it just can't be bothered. From there it's not a far step to the third and worst - a food-conditioned bear.

STIVER: And we define a food-conditioned animal as one that's actually coming to us trying to get our food or garbage.

ROTT: It identifies human or places we frequent - like trails, campsites, dumpsters or towns - as sources of food. And it seeks them out, crossing busy roads, going through yards, whatever it takes - not good for bear, not good for human and definitely not good for the people tasked with protecting both.

STIVER: Once that behavior gets ingrained, it's really, really hard to change that behavior.

ROTT: They can move the bear. But if there's no way to move it or it comes back, there's really only one other option. Stiver says they usually have to do it one or two times a year.

STIVER: I don't take any pleasure in euthanizing a bear. I feel like we fail if we either have to move a bear or we have to euthanize it. Somewhere in that process we've failed. And I don't mean we as just me. I mean, we as people...

ROTT: ...As a species...

STIVER: Right 'cause we're getting too close to it. You know, we're stripping it of that natural wild behavior.

ROTT: Which brings us back to our bear jam on the side of the road with wildlife biologist Ryan Williamson and a line of excited picture-taking tourists.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There's two of them right there.

ROTT: Remember there are three bears here - a sow and two cubs, all of which are presumably wild.

WILLIAMSON: This is how habituation happens.

ROTT: This is how it happens.

WILLIAMSON: Like I say, she's just tolerant of us right now.

ROTT: And her cubs...

Are they picking this up, too? Like...

WILLIAMSON: Oh yeah, they're learning right now.

ROTT: Which means these cubs, no more than a year old, are already on that slippery slope to becoming problem bears.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR STARTING)

ROTT: OK, so to quickly recap - bear sees people, bear gets used to people, bear becomes problem. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park every year, you have 1,600 black bears and more than 10 million people. In a perfect world, they would both exist in the same space without influencing the other.

WILLIAMSON: But the problem is is that neither one can behave themselves.

ROTT: People just can't help getting too close or dropping food. Bears just can't help but eat it up. So how can you stop that from happening?

Well, you can educate people and you can educate bears. We're here to see the second.

WILLIAMSON: Where's our bears at?

ROTT: The place that we're at is called the Appalachian Bear Rescue, a rehabilitation center outside of the park. They take starving bear cubs, nurse them back to health and get them into the wild as fast as possible. Williamson comes in at that last part - the release. That's why we're here to pick up two female yearlings.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Come to you...

ROTT: And this is where the education part comes in. Both of these bears were found in towns, so it's fair to say that they're somewhat used to people. Hard to tell because they're both drugged asleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAR SNORING)

ROTT: Yes, that is the sound of a little 1-year-old black bear snoring. One more time, please.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAR SNORING)

ROTT: Williamson and a team of vets prep every black bear before it leaves. They take blood samples and skin samples. They put in ear tags and a GPS collar. They even tattoo the inside of the bear's lip with what can best be described as an elaborate hole puncher.

WILLIAMSON: Squeeze tight, too. You're not going to hurt her.

ROTT: All of these things are done as humanely as possible and for good reasons. But there's no way around it - if you're the bear, this process is a huge bummer. It's like getting a crown, a vaccination and a physical from an alien dentist. And it can be a bummer for the humans, too.

WILLIAMSON: Nobody ever really wants to give a cold-water enema, you know? Even a father doesn't really - it's not something - you lose a little bit of your dignity (laughter).

ROTT: Jokes aside, Williamson says he wants this to be a bad experience for the bear - not a cruel experience but one that they'll remember negatively. He explains it back in the truck with both bears in the back.

WILLIAMSON: Some people think that all I do is punish bears that have bad behavior. Well, yes, but I'm trying to fix that bad behavior. So in my eyes, I'm saving bears, not punishing bears.

ROTT: We stop a few miles down a dirt road. Williamson has me put my microphone on the tailgate where the bears will exit and tells me to stand in clear view of the cage.

WILLIAMSON: I want humans to be present so when the bear turns around and looks and sees what just happened, I want them to see us and be like I don't want to ever experience that again.

ROTT: Williamson's intern, Brandon Garcia, climbs on top of the cage and lifts the gate. It happens quick. The bear cub leaps off the back and runs into the brush.

So that's that.

WILLIAMSON: Yep, it's pretty fast.

ROTT: Hopefully you'll never have to see those bears again.

WILLIAMSON: Exactly.

ROTT: We get back into the truck and start driving back to headquarters. And not more than 15 minutes into the drive, the radio squawks.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We're taking a report of a car feeding a bear just before the (unintelligible).

ROTT: Oh, a bear hitting a what?

WILLIAMSON: Feeding a bear.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You're a little hard to read...

ROTT: The radio traffic continues and Williamson sighs. He can educate all of the bears he wants here, but he can't educate all of the people. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.