Best way to avoid bear conflicts? Leave ’em be!


“A bear is basically a giant raccoon.”

That’s the way Shane Kinsey describes black bears in the Big South Fork NRRA.

Kinsey, the park’s resident black bear expert who recently transitioned from the Great Smoky Mountains, told visitors at Bandy Creek Campground Saturday evening that bears are curious by nature and it’s best for humans to do their part to avoid the encounters that result.

“If a bear smells something different, it wants to sample it — and a bear can smell 15 times better than a bloodhound,” Kinsey said. “If a cooler is empty, it can still smell a Yahoo that busted in it three years ago.”

Kinsey said there are basically three types of bears — “and you’ll be happy to know that we have nice bears in the Big South Fork.” The not-so-nice bears, he said, are the ones that have become accustomed to receiving food from humans — a big problem in the Smokies. That makes bears nuisance animals, and requires them to be relocated. The next step is a bear that becomes predatory because it affiliates humans with food — and that means automatic death for the bear.

“Once a bear goes into a tent or into a vehicle or attacks a human, he’s euthanized,” Kinsey said, describing those bears as animals that have lost all fear of humans. “Feeding a bear is a death sentence for that bear. The placards you see on the picnic tables are serious.”

Fortunately, Kinsey said, it has not come to that with any of the estimated 300 bears in the Big South Fork. And visitors can help keep it that way by locking up food and coolers when camping either at campgrounds or in the backcountry, and by properly disposing of trash. All of those things are required and violations can result in fines.

As for bear encounters in the backcountry, Kinsey said, the best thing is to simply give them a wide berth. Usually, they’ll run at the first sign of a human. If they don’t, understand why — the bear may have cubs nearby, or humans may have accidentally intruded its meal.

“If you see a bear in a blackberry patch that is armpit-deep with ripe blackberries, don’t try to chase it out,” Kinsey said. “Just let it be a bear. It’ll do what bears do: fill up on blackberries, then lay down and take a nap, or climb a tree and take a nap.”

Pictured: A black bear sow and her cub in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area near Station Camp. (Photo: Melissa Capps, Pixel Star Photography)

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