By Jennifer Sicking
Featured photo by Tony Campbell
Research photos by Kristy Keel Blackmon
Michael Pelton returned to the UT Institute of Agriculture in 1968 with a doctoral degree, planning to continue his research into cottontail rabbits.
One phone call changed that.
And changed what was known about Ursus americanus: black bears.
And changed bear research around the world.
For 50 years, UT has led research on the black bears of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in what is the longest continuous study of a bear population in the world and the second-longest study on carnivores in the world. It began when the park’s resource management office called UT looking for someone to study the Smokies’ icon.
“They were concerned about the numbers,” says Pelton (Knoxville ’62), now professor emeritus of wildlife science in the UT Institute of Agriculture department of forestry, wildlife and fisheries. “They knew little about the animal.”
Pelton first visited the park as a child in 1949 for a short hike. But it was his second hike, in 1951, from Cades Cove to Spence Field that addicted him to exploring the Smokies.
By the time the phone call came in 1968, Pelton already knew most of the park’s trails.
In the bear study’s beginning, Pelton chose to monitor trails that reached far into the backcountry away from park roads. Every two weeks, he and graduate students covered 100-plus miles on foot, collecting bear scat to discover what the animals were eating. Then, through the late spring and summer, they set trap lines to capture bears so they could take blood samples, measure and tag them—and to place radio collars for tracking on a few. Pelton and his graduate researchers were the first in the eastern United States to track bears with radio collars.
Pelton’s early research estimated that 300 black bears lived inside the park. But that was only the beginning.
The radio collars allowed the researchers to locate the bears by using antennas. Prevailing wisdom at the time was that bears denned in the shallow rock crevices or caves that litter the mountains. Instead, Pelton and the graduate students discovered that the sows, female bears, prefer large, old hollow trees in which to spend their winters and to have their cubs.
The largest of the old trees—the chestnuts—had died off due to the spread of a fungal infection across the eastern U.S. The fungus devastated the trees that provided homes and food to the bears. Oaks—and their acorns—now provide homes and food for the bears and, in part, helped the resurgence of bears in the park. In 2008—the last time a good estimate was taken, Pelton says—between 1,500 and 1,800 bears lived in the park.
“The population has grown quite a bit because of the work by the University of Tennessee,” says Bill Stiver (Knoxville ’91), supervisory wildlife biologist for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “It helps us to better manage the bears. Denning season, breeding season, their movements—we learned all of that through the University of Tennessee.”
UT faculty and students have also been instrumental in helping move bears from the Smokies to other areas in Tennessee and beyond to help repopulate those areas.
“Bears are not good at colonizing,” says Joe Clark, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist, UT adjunct professor and project co-researcher. “We’ve developed techniques to jump start that process.”
One question answered about the bears led to new questions which led to new answers and more new questions. Slowly, through the decades, researchers learned about the black bear and unraveled some of its mysteries.
“I’m a strong proponent of long-term studies,” Pelton says. “It takes a long time to see how bears respond through the different seasons.”
And how the different years affect oak trees, which in turn affects the bears. The bears’ continued success depends upon the acorn—another finding by UT research.
“Some years, the acorns are so scarce that few to no cubs are born,” Pelton says. “Some years, they have three or four cubs. They normally have two.”
UT’s studies have uncovered the bears’ intelligence and adaptability. They usually move around and eat in the late evening or early morning, but if they find it to their advantage to forage at night—say, in a trashcan outside a house—they will.
“Similar to humans in many ways, bears are the other intelligent omnivore,” Pelton says.
They can stand and walk upright on their hind legs and move their toes to grasp items like humans. They have a long tongue and a broad dietary range—from acorns to carrion and elk calves to fish or whatever’s in the dumpster outside the pancake restaurant.
“The more we work with them, the more impressed we are,” Pelton says. “As a Canadian colleague says, ‘Any large carnivore you can teach to ride a bike, you need to show respect for.’ ”
Contributions of UT black-bear research:
- Developed and improved capturing, marking, handling and monitoring techniques
- Refined ways to estimate populations and growth rates
- Developed and established a system for population monitoring
- Developed effective protocols for black-bear reintroductions
- Documented the importance of old-growth trees for winter denning
- Established the importance of hard mast (food sources such as acorns) to black-bear population dynamics
- Promoted technology transfer to other North American bear studies as well as international bear studies of the giant panda, Asiatic black bear, European brown bear, sloth bear and spectacled bear
Throughout Pelton’s career, he worked with almost 100 graduate students, and about half of them expanded the black bear research to 16 areas in eight Southeastern states. He also began receiving calls that spawned studies into other bear species: Asiatic bears in Japan, brown bears in Spain and giant pandas in China.
In addition, Clark and his colleague Frank vanManen (Knoxville ’94), who previously worked with the USGS program at UT, carried the program into the 21st century, adding new bear species and study areas nationally and internationally. Now, vanManen, a former Pelton graduate student, is head of the grizzly bear research program in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
In Tennessee, they’re still learning about black bears.
“The more you learn, the less you know about them,” Clark says. “No one will ever surprise me with what a bear does.”
UT graduate students Jessica Giacomini and Coy Blair represent the latest graduate students to unravel questions in black-bear research. Giacomini studies nuisance bears in the park and where they pick up their behavior, while Blair assesses the fates of those released by the Appalachian Bear Rescue, an organization based in Townsend, Tennessee. In Giacomini and Blair’s research, they’ve moved from using radio collars to track bears, which necessitated using antennas to find the bears, to using GPS collars, which automatically transmit data. The new technology already is unveiling new information.
“It’s important to their management to look at movement and activity patterns,” Giacomini says. And what they’re finding is surprising. Some bears, every day around midnight, move out of the park and into the
adjacent Tennessee towns of Gatlinburg, Wears Valley, Townsend and Pigeon Forge to forage for food in everything from trash cans to dumpsters, bird feeders to dog bowls. Those behaviors and associating people with food affects their behavior in the park.
“Bear management is just people management,” Giacomini says. Which means even people living outside the park need to think about using bear-proof trashcans and not leaving food where bears can reach it because, once bears associate an area and humans with food, they will return again and again. Such interactions often lead to bears’ deaths.
Bears will travel 50 to 60 miles in food foraging, ranging farther than previously thought. A female’s home range usually covers up to 5 square miles, while a male will range up to 25 square miles, Pelton says.
People travel across the United States and around the world to make Great Smoky Mountains National Park the most-visited in the nation—one where most visitors come hoping to spot a bear. And, if they do, prepare to stay put for a while, as “bear jams”—traffic stopped by motorists who pursue bears with their cameras—are a fact of life for the park.
“They’re a charismatic symbol of the wild,” Stiver says of black bears. “Just the opportunity to see one is pretty special.”
Even if people miss actually seeing a bear, the prospect still has an effect.
“Just the fact that, out there, is a large animal in the wild,” Clark says. “You may not see one in your lifetime, but I think we’re all better off knowing that there are still places where they’re roaming.”
Interacting with black bears
- Keep at least 50 yards away. Disturbing a bear is illegal.
- Don’t run; that initiates predatory behavior.
- Don’t play dead; black bears eat carrion.
- Don’t climb a tree; they’re fast and expert climbers.
- Obey signs at trail heads that ban dogs—all dogs—from hiking trails to avoid tragic interactions with park wildlife.
- If bears continue to approach:
Throw rocks and sticks.