Study: High number of black bears in E. Tenn. travel out of GSMNP

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WVLT) - It's shocking to some people when black bears make a grand entrance in the wrong neck of the woods instead of their own.

They become viral sensations by landing in hot tubs or when they are spotted dumpster diving. In response, UT grad student Jessica Braunstein studies bear activity and said this is a problem.

"That puts them in a lot of risks. That puts them at risk at being hit by a car, they are more likely to be harvested by hunters, especially if they leave the park itself," Braunstein said.

So, she and wildlife rangers teamed up to claw through four years of data. They put GPS tracking collars on about 50 bears to see how far they are going.

More than half of them took off outside the park. We're told part of the problem is the park isn't big enough for them. Plus, it turns out the bears like human food, which causes another issue.

"They start to develop these conflict behaviors so they become more bold around people. They may become more aggressive in some cases, they spend a lot more time spending time in human areas," Braunstein said.

The park has bear-proof dumpsters, and 20 years ago Gatlinburg passed a bear-proof container ordinance.

Biologist Bill Stiver said the study shows more needs to be done.

"And, frankly, we need something similar all along our boundary, particularly the areas that are growing," Stiver said.

The park's next step is education. Stiver said a state-wide program called 'Bear Wise' will help folks understand a fed bear is a dead bear.

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