Confirmation may not have necessarily been needed after the rash of bear sightings throughout Scott County over the past two years, but it has been given anyway: the black bear population is thriving here.
From an initial release of 14 sows and 16 cubs transplanted into the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area from the Great Smoky Mountains in the mid 1990s, there are now close to 300 bears roaming the BSF and surrounding areas on either side of the Tennessee-Kentucky border, according to estimates from a survey conducted by state agencies last summer.
"It's a booming population. The bears are doing really good here," said Dustin Burke, who participated in the survey as a ranger at Pickett State Park and now works at Oneida Police Department.
The survey consisted of setting up barbed wire fences around bait sites. When the bears crossed through the strands of barbed wire to get to the food, hair samples were caught on the barbs. The workers monitoring the traps gathered those samples on a weekly basis and submitted them for DNA testing. Those tests were able to determine whether the bears were related to the bears originally released nearly 20 years ago and how many different bears were visiting the bait sites.
Burke and TWRA biologist Ben Layton monitored 28 traps between Obey Blevins Road west of Bandy Creek and Pickett State Park, Burke said.
"At my traps, I collected well over 1,000 samples. Out of 28 traps, I had only one that was not touched by a bear," he said.
While most of those samples were from repeat visitors to the bear traps, the findings confirmed that there are numerous bears in the area. Meanwhile, other TWRA biologists and representatives from partnering agencies were finding the same thing at traps elsewhere in the BSF and surrounding properties.
"There are more bears up there than we thought," University of Tennessee researcher Joe Clark told the Knoxville News Sentinel recently. "The population has grown by leaps and bounds."
After DNA testing, TWRA used a formula to reach the conclusion that there are about 245 bears in the entire north Cumberland region — the majority of which falls into the Big South Fork NRRA or Pickett State Forest — and another 40 or so on the Kentucky side of the border. Of the bears on the Tennessee side, the majority apparently are believed to roam the west side of the river, the western portion of the Big South Fork in Scott and Fentress counties and the state forest in extreme eastern Pickett County.
Burke, who graduated from Tennessee Tech with a degree in wildlife sciences and who led frequent bear education programs as a ranger at Pickett State Park, said the habitat here supports a healthy bear population.
"Bears breed based on what they can support, what the land gives them," Burke said. "There is a sow between Bandy and Pickett that has been documented to have five cubs at a time. All our bears here are having twins and triplets."
One of the reasons for the survey was to determine whether a hunting season is needed to keep the bear population in check. A hunt has been lobbied for by horseback riders in Fentress County and by others who have been critics of the bear program in the Big South Fork since its inception.
TWRA personnel, however, indicate that such a hunt is still several years away.
In an interview with the Independent Herald last summer, TWRA wildlife officer Wade Young stressed that bears do not represent an inherent danger to humans.
"Bears aren't typically aggressive towards humans," Young said. "When they are, it's usually in defensive situations where humans have gotten too close to them and made them feel threatened. Bears don't see humans and associate that with a meal. They're generally going to keep their distance and not come after you."
Residents who live in what has become "bear country" — generally areas in eastern Scott County, though bears have occasionally shown up in western parts of the county — can deal with the new woodlands neighbors fairly easily, those who deal with bears on a regular basis say.
For unwanted backyard visits from bears, noise — yelling, blowing a car horn or setting off firecrackers — is usually more than enough to scare them away, while electric fences have been proven an effective deterrent for garden-raiding bears.
The main thing, though, is to keep your distance.
"Bears are here," Young said last summer. "We're going to have to learn to deal with them."
While the bear program at Big South Fork has its detractors, not everyone is opposed. Past studies by the University of Tennessee have found a large majority of residents in Scott, Morgan and Fentress counties in favor of having bears in the region, and the critters are also proving to add to the area's allure to tourists.
Stacey Kidd, executive director of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce, said that guests who stop by the Scott County Visitor Center often inquire about bears — where they can be seen, for example — and said the bear population can be used as a promotional tool in the future. Gatlinburg aggressively promotes its black bear population, and many visitors to the Smokies list the possibility of seeing bears as one of the reasons they visit.