The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Smokies rangers kill bear after it hurts Elkmont campers while seeking food

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6-minute video about what to do if you see a black bear

Smokies officials say euthanized bear was overweight and seeking human food

GATLINBURG — Great Smoky Mountains National Park wildlife biologists and park rangers responded to Elkmont Campground on Sunday (June 12) after a peculiarly large black bear injured a toddler and her mother sleeping in a tent.

Wildlife biologists captured the responsible bear, and it was euthanized Monday, June 13, according to a news release from the park service.

“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,” said Lisa McInnis, resource management chief.

“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.”

Smokies officials offered this explanation of events:

“A family of five were sleeping in their tent at Elkmont, with their dog, when a black bear ripped into the tent at approximately 5:20 a.m. on Sunday, June 12. After gaining access to the inside of the tent, the bear scratched a 3-year-old girl and her mother. The father was able to scare the bear from the tent and campsite, but only after several attempts. The family left a note at the campground office to report the incident and departed the campground to seek medical attention. Both mother and daughter sustained superficial lacerations to their heads. 

“Park officials were notified of the incident at approximately 8:50 a.m. by the campground hosts. Park rangers responded to the site, closed the immediate area, interviewed the father of the involved family along with other campers, and collected site information such as bear tracks and other markers that could help identify the bear.

“Staff monitored the site for bear activity and set traps in the area. A male bear, matching the physical description of the involved bear, entered the campsite where the incident had occurred. The bear exhibited extreme food-conditioned behavior and lack of fear of humans, boldly entering the trap without wariness. Based on a match with physical measurements and descriptors, along with observed bear behavior, biologists successfully matched and identified the responsible bear.  

“The bear’s behavior appeared to be inconsistent with predatory behavior, but rather that of a food-conditioned bear. Human-bear conflicts peak in late May and June when natural foods, like berries, are not yet available. Bears are attracted to the smell of food and garbage in our developed areas, like campgrounds and picnic areas. Campers are reminded to take necessary precautions including properly following food storage regulations while in bear country. Park staff will continue to track reports of bear activity in campgrounds and other busy locations and notify the public regarding any site warnings or closures.” 

Learn more about black bears in the Smokies. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Food Storage Regulations

All food and equipment used to prepare and store food (stoves, pots, coolers, etc.) must be kept sealed in a vehicle (preferably the trunk) or in a camping unit constructed of solid, non-pliable material or as otherwise directed at all times when not in use. 

Dispose of garbage promptly in dumpsters provided. Unattended or improperly stored coolers and food may be impounded by campground staff and stored at the campground office. This regulation will be strictly enforced and violators are subject to fines.

Last updated: December 9, 2021

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