More Hikers + More Bears = Trouble
By Bob Proudman and Beth Critton
Black bears are the only bears found in the eastern U.S., and their populations are increasing. At the same time, increasing numbers of hikers are attempting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, many of them unfamiliar with the backcountry and with Leave No Trace practices.
Although black bears are not generally aggressive, they are omnivorous opportunists. Particularly in spring and early summer, before their main food sources such as berries and acorns have had time to ripen, bears may be attracted to A.T. shelters and campsites. If they are successful in obtaining food there, they may become habituated, returning again and again looking for more.
So far this season, more reports of black-bear encounters at overnight sites along the Trail have streamed in to ATC headquarters than in recent memory. Some examples:
Beartown State Forest, MA: Multiple reports were received in July of an aggressive bear at Wilcox North lean-to. One hiker said his party had to leave without retrieving his bear bag from a tree. The AMC–Berkshire A.T. Committee is installing a bear box at this site, and rangers are on high alert.
Humpback Rocks, VA: Due to aggressive bear activity in June, NPS Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway rangers decided to close a section of the A.T. to overnight camping between the Paul Wolfe Shelter and Dripping Rock. ATC posted NPS-approved signs. The area has since been reopened.
Catawba Mountain, VA: ATC ridgerunner Eric West noted at least a dozen different sightings at the Campbell and Lambert’s Meadow shelters, according to messages in the shelter logbooks. That area near Roanoke is popular with beginners and one-night backpackers and has an above-average amount of abandoned food and trash. The ridgerunner found apples, a loaf of bread, and a bag of trail mix on a July weekend. Signs alerting hikers and reminding them to secure food properly have been posted in the area.
Unaka Mountain, TN: While out working on the A.T., a volunteer was told by a section hiker of a bear that would not leave the Low Gap campsite. Other campers were not comfortable staying the night there, so they left their equipment behind and hiked on. Hikers retrieved their gear and were taking it to them.
In June, a teenager was injured in the Hazel Creek backcountry area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (not near the A.T.) when a bear pulled him from the hammock where he was sleeping. His father managed to chase the bear off, and the two hiked out for help. A bear was trapped in the area and euthanized. However, DNA testing confirmed it had not been involved in the attack. Rangers later shot another bear. They were unable to track it because of rain and darkness, but believe that it died of its injuries. DNA evidence was obtained from a recovered bullet, and officials believe that bear was the one that attacked the teen.
A habituated bear is unafraid, and an unafraid bear is dangerous. Although not A.T. related, in the past 15 years there have been four reported killings by black bears in the eastern U.S.—two in Tennessee (in the Smokies and in the Cherokee National Forest), one in New York, and one last year in a New Jersey state park.
Keeping bears from associating overnight sites, tents, packs, and hikers with food not only may prevent injuries to hikers, or even a fatality, but may mean that fewer bears will be destroyed to protect human safety.
We will have more in a future issue on what Trail clubs can do - and are already doing - to deter bears from obtaining food at overnight sites.
Beth Critton is Chair of the Stewardship Council
Bob Proudman has retired from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, but continues to contribute to The Register.
Stay Bear Safe
- Remain watchful.
- Do not approach it
- Do not allow the bear to approach you.
- If your presence causes the bear to change its behavior (stops feeding, changes its travel direction, watches you, etc.) you are too close.
- Being too close may promote aggressive behavior from the bear such as running toward you, making loud noises, or swatting the ground. The bear is demanding more space. Don't run, but slowly back away, watching the bear. Increase the distance between you and the bear. The bear will probably do the same.
If a bear persistently follows or approaches you, without vocalizing, or paw swatting:
- Change your direction.
- If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground.
- If the bear gets closer, talk loudly or shout at it.
- Act aggressively to intimidate the bear.
- Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground).
- Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear.
- Use a deterrent such as a stout stick.
- Don't run and don't turn away from the bear.
- Don't leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.
If the bear's behavior indicates that it is after your food and you are physically attacked:
- Separate yourself from the food.
- Slowly back away.
If the bear shows no interest in your food and you are physically attacked, the bear may consider you as prey:
- Fight back aggressively with any available object!
- Do not play dead!
The new gate installed by staff at Little Buffalo State Park on boundary between Ibberson Conservation Area and the A.T. corridor will prevent motorized vehicles from accessing the A.T. (Photo by Jeff Buehler)
New Gate Installed on Victoria Trail
The Victoria Trail in Pennsylvania is a popular access and side trail of the A.T. maintained by the Susquehanna Appalachian Trail Club (SATC). In spring of 2012, an access gate was cut off in order to suppress a wildfire. Afterwards, the gate went missing, leaving the A.T. vulnerable to misuse by motorized vehicles.
Great communication from SATC members Jeff Buehler and Phil Day alerted ATC to this problem. Working in partnership with Little Buffalo State Park, a new gate has been installed, providing needed protection to the A.T. Many thanks to Interim Park Manager Gavin Smith and his staff for installing this new gate!
If you are in the area, I recommend you explore the secluded trails in the 803-acre Ibberson Conservation Area, and check out the new gate while you are there (http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/findapark/josepheibberson/index.htm
Corridor Stewardship Coordinator
ATC Mid-Atlantic Regional Office