How the TWRA decides when to relocate or euthanize nuisance bears

Human-bear conflicts peak in late May and June when berries and other natural foods are unavailable, according to Smokies officials.
Published: Jun. 17, 2022 at 11:15 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 17, 2022 at 2:42 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - When in East Tennessee, it isn’t uncommon to spot a black bear or two, especially during spring and summer, but problem bears can be dangerous, causing wildlife officials to act.

Earlier this week, a 90-year-old woman told WVLT News she was thankful not to have significant injuries after a bear attacked her with its three yearlings. Altha Williams used a lawn chair to keep the bear from approaching any closer, only taking a scratch on the arm.

“I was just sitting here, hadn’t been here more than two or three minutes,” Williams said. “Evidently, it heard me. It just made a lunge at me.”

WVLT News spoke to Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency spokesperson Matt Cameron about the incident and said that Williams reacted exactly as she should have.

“After the mother bear swatted at the victim, it left that area and, from what we are told, it charged another neighbor who shot it,” he said. Once that happened, there was no choice but to euthanize her,” Cameron said.

The bear marked the second to be euthanized in just a week in the area. Another bear ripped into a tent and scratched a woman and her 3-year-old daughter at the Elkmont Campground on June 12. Afterward, officials said that wildlife biologists captured the bear after an investigation and euthanized it.

Following the events, many people asked why the animals couldn’t be relocated or what guidelines were in place for euthanizing bears. 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.

“Once a bear came onto a porch or entered a dwelling, and furthermore, had contact with a human and caused human bodily injury, that automatically escalates it to a level 4 situation on our chart - which means the bear has to be euthanized by several different means,” according to Cameron.

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)

According to Smokies officials, human-bear conflicts peak in late May and June when berries and other natural foods are unavailable, so bears are drawn to garbage and food smells in the area, such as the campgrounds and picnic areas. As a result, they reminded campers and visitors of the park or bear-heavy areas to store any food or garbage properly, as the smallest amount can attract the animals.

While bear attacks are rare, they can occur; therefore, state officials encourage people attacked by a black bear to fight back with the nearest object as the animal will likely view the person as prey.

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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