Black Bear Attacks Sleeping Tent Campers in Smokey Mountains

On Monday, Great Smoky Mountains National Park rangers euthanized a 350-pound black bear that attacked a family as they slept in their tent at a campground southwest of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. During the incident, which occurred on Sunday morning, a woman and her young daughter “sustained superficial lacerations to their heads,” the park service said in a new release.

“A family of five were sleeping in their tent at Elkmont, with their dog, when a black bear ripped into the tent at approximately 5:20 a.m.,” officials said in the release. “After gaining access to the inside of the tent, the bear scratched a 3-year-old girl and her mother. The father was able to scare the bear from the tent and campsite, but only after several attempts. The family left a note at the campground office to report the incident and departed the campground to seek medical attention.”

The half-million acre national park, which straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border, is one of the largest protected areas for black bears in the eastern United States. An estimated 1,500 bruins populate the park. According to the National Park Service, human-bear conflicts “peak in late May and June when natural foods, like berries, are not yet available.” 

Great Smoky Mountain black bears feed on sedges, insects, and carrion, but their preferred foods, comprising 85 percent of their diet when in season, are berries and nuts. 

But the euthanized bear was not after berries. Lisa McInnis, the park’s chief of resource management, told the Charlotte Observer, “The bear weighed approximately 350 pounds, which is not standard for this time of year, suggesting the bear had previous and likely consistent access to non-natural food sources. In this incident, the bear was likely attracted to food smells throughout the area, including dog food at the involved campsite.”

After being alerted to the incident at around 9 am, park biologists conducted an investigation and then set bear traps at the southwestern edge of the campground. When the bear returned to the campsite the next day, according to the release, it exhibited “extreme food-conditioned behavior and lack of fear of humans, boldly entering the trap without wariness.”

“It is very difficult to deter this learned behavior and, as in this case, the result can lead to an unacceptable risk to people,” McInnis concluded. The campground remained open, but the park service issued a warning recommending that campers not use “tents and soft-sided shelters” and that they close and lock bear-resistant food containers. On Monday, they euthanized the bear for public safety.

According to the park service, historically, only two bear-related human fatalities have been reported inside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the most recent in September 2020, when a bear killed a camper in the Hazel Creek Area.

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