Tenn. Senator talks stiffer punishments for approaching bears

Senator Art Swann said he expects more discussion on changing laws for bear encounters in next legislative session in January.
Senator Art Swann said he expects more discussion on changing laws for bear encounters in next legislative session in January.
Published: Aug. 2, 2022 at 11:17 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 3, 2022 at 11:12 AM EDT
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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WVLT) - As bear interactions have proven more common outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, local lawmakers are discussing the possibility of changes to Tennessee law that would add more punishment for reckless bear encounters.

Senator Art Swann represents Gatlinburg’s district, but soon won’t due to redistricting across the region. WVLT News spoke with him to talk about incidents where a woman was seen and photographed petting a bear. Since then, management at the Quality Inn Creekside hotel said the woman has checked out.

Although the hotel’s owner Raj Patel said they’ve kicked more than 10 people out over the last year for negligent bear encounters, it’s not illegal, according to state law.

“Why would that be different than giving someone a ticket for going 100 miles an hour on here on the highway?” said Swann who wants to see negligent behavior penalized.

The Senator is wanting to ensure that people and the bears remain safe but doesn’t know how impactful new legislation would be.

“I don’t know if the laws will stop something that common sense wouldn’t stop.” said Swann.

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.

While those laws remain in place for the national park and Gatlinburg, Swann said the most appropriate form of extended penalties would come in a statewide change.

“A general state law is probably most appropriate. You can put parameters around that to make it more local.” said Swann.

Although he feels a change would help reduce harmful encounters to a certain degree, Swann said he likely won’t propose or draft any new legislation because he won’t be representing Gatlinburg for much longer and wants a change to come from the lawmakers involved in the community every day.

He added that he believes there haven’t been talks of this in a legislative session before because there haven’t been many serious bear encounters until the last year or so.

WVLT News reached out to Representative Dale Carr’s office for comment on if he’s considering any changes, and a staff member referred to the TWRA for further inquiry.

The next legislative session is slated for January where Swann feels there could be more discussion on the topic. As it stands now, there is no current pending legislation to change the current laws.

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