Pictured: A black bear sow and her cub peer from the foliage of a large white oak tree at Big South Fork Medical Center on Wednesday, September 19, 2018 | Sarah Dunlap

Black bears have been quite the topic of conversation in Oneida this week.

Even before a sow and multiple cubs showed up at Big South Fork Medical Center on Tuesday to feast on white oak acorns, social media had been alive with discussion about bears around town, primarily prompted by a pet-owner's grizzly discovery of their dead family pet — presumably eaten by a bear — late Sunday.

Wade Young, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency law enforcement officer assigned to Scott County, told the Independent Herald Wednesday that he is aware of the bears at the hospital, and said that while they are being closely monitored, they do not presently pose a threat to public safety.

Bear sightings have increased in recent weeks as soft mast — the fruits and berries and related foods that bears subsist on in late summer — have disappeared and bears were waiting for hard mast, like acorns and hickory nuts, to ripen. But none has generated quite the excitement as a mother bear and at least two cubs that appeared at BSFMC on Tuesday.

Throughout the evening on Tuesday and again on Wednesday, interested passersby paused in the rear parking lot of the hospital to gaze into the branches of a large white oak tree, where the bears were periodically sleeping and munching on acorns.

“When I was there (Tuesday), they were just up in the tree, enjoying the acorns, being bears,” Young said. “They were sleeping part of the time. I watched the sow take a 45-minute nap while I was there.”

Young, who covers all of Scott County as the sole TWRA officer assigned to the region, returned to the hospital to monitor the bears after dark on Tuesday, using thermal-imaging equipment to spot them in the tree. He was going to return to the hospital on Wednesday, after a work-related trip to Nashville.

While the hospital is not an ideal location for bears to be, they did not pose a threat to hospital staff, patients or to area residents, Young said. He added that they will continue to be monitored.

A bear cub peers over the limb of a large white oak at Big South Fork Medical Center on Wednesday, September 19. The cub was one of at least two — some reported seeing three — with a sow that was in the same tree | Sarah Dunlap

“If they were to start making audible noises after coming out of the tree, or getting into trash or something like that, then we would look at darting them,” he said. “But as long as they’re just being bears, we prefer to let them be.”

Young said it’s likely no one would have known the bears were near the hospital if staff hadn’t spotted them in the tree. After they were sighted, news spread quickly via social media.

Two days earlier, something — perhaps a bear — killed a blue heeler dog at a residence on Grave Hill Road, approximately a mile away from the hospital. The dog’s concerned owners used social media to alert their neighbors about the possibility of a bear being in the neighborhood. The dog was discovered in a field behind the family’s home, and had been partially eaten.

Young said he could not say with certainty whether the culprit was the bear that later turned up at the hospital, or whether it was a bear at all.

“Something killed the dog, which is tragic,” Young said. “I can’t say conclusively that it was a bear or wasn’t a bear, but it could’ve been.” He added that it would be unusual for a bear to act aggressively towards a pet, though bears — as opportunistic feeders — will commonly feed on a dead dog or coyote if they come across them.

“Black bears are lazy,” Young said. “That’s the best way I know to describe them. Hollywood has created the wrong image of black bears because they’ll use a black bear to portray a grizzly bear.” 

However, Young said, a bear with young can be a different story, and if a dog or any other pet acts in a manner that a sow finds threatening towards her cubs, the bear can attack.

“If she feels like her young are threatened, she’ll defend them, just like any good mother would, human or animal,” he said.

In fact, Dustin Burke — an Oneida Police Department officer who has wildlife training and dealt with bears extensively during his time as a ranger at Pickett State Park — opined Monday evening that the blue heeler that was the subject of more than 300 Facebook shares met exactly that fate: getting mixed up between a bear and her cubs.

Ironically, Burke — who lives behind the hospital — captured cell phone photos of a sow and her cubs wandering through the vacant fields between Oneida Nursing Center and Stanley Street Tuesday morning. 

While the bears photographed by Burke were likely the ones that wound up at the hospital later Tuesday afternoon, Young said there’s no way to know for sure they had meandered to the hospital from the Grave Hill Road area.

“That’s about a mile away, so it’s certainly possible, but there are very likely other bears hanging out in the area,” Young said.

Young said he hoped that the bears at the hospital will simply leave the area.

“What we hope she’ll do is come down out of the tree and wander away on her own. That’s definitely ideal,” he said.

As long as the bears are in the tree, darting them is not an option. Once they’re on the ground, TWRA prefers not to dart them if they’re nursing, since the sedative from the dart can effect the cubs.

‘Common Sense’

Reintroduced in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area some 20 years ago, black bears have become increasingly common in the northern Cumberland Plateau region in recent years. While there are more sightings some years than others, the bears are always present, and have rarely caused conflict aside from their usual dumpster raids.

While the BSF’s bear population is growing, the local bears are also intermingling with bears from the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. Young said he’s trapped two bears that had been tagged in Kentucky.

As for recent problems from bears as pests, Young said he has received fewer calls in the last two weeks, presumably due to the maturation of hard mast, like acorns and hickory nuts. 

“That’s helped,” he said. But, he added, that might also be what lured the sow and her cubs to the hospital in the middle of town.

“She found a big white oak tree at the hospital that’s just absolutely loaded with acorns,” he said. “That’s probably what drew her in and she may stay there until the acorns are gone.”

In the meantime, Young said the best way to approach bears is with common sense: give them plenty of room and don’t intrude on their space. When he arrived at the hospital on Tuesday, he said, a small crowd had assembled around the base of the tree the bears were in. 

“Once I asked them to move back onto the pavement, they complied,” he said. “Everyone was cooperative. I get the novelty, because most people never get the chance to see a bear  because they're so reclusive and are mostly active at night, but it's not a good idea to crowd them."

While it’s never a good idea to crowd a bear, that’s especially the case when cubs are present. 

Additionally, Young said food sources — such as trash and pet food — should be secured so that bears cannot get to them. And while black bears will rarely attack pets, Young said it is not a bad idea to secure pets if it is known that a bear is in the area.

As for when to contact TWRA, Young said it is not necessary for typical bear sightings.

“We know they’re here,” he said. “Their range is expanding a little every year but we pretty well know where they’re at.”

If the bear is being a nuisance, it’s time to call wildlife authorities, Young added. But, he said, “If it’s an issue involving the bear getting into trash or getting into pet food, we’re probably going to talk to the landowner and ask them to take some precautions.” 

By leaving trash, table scraps and pet food in locations where they can be easily accessed by bears, those items are serving as bait to draw bears into the neighborhood, even though that’s not what the landowner intended, Young said. 

“Even though bears’ feeding habits have changed to include table scraps, pet food and things like that, they definitely prefer their natural food sources, the soft mast and the hard mast,” Young said. Usually, he said, removing food sources will take care of the problem, and the bears will simply be on about their business. “Removing the food is the best way to handle the problem and that’s what we prefer to do before we try to trap them or issue deprivation permits,” he said.

Ultimately, Young said, humans and bears can live peaceably together.

"Sevier County learned to do it," he said. "We're a few years behind them because the bears are newer here, but we have to learn to live with them."

Did You Know? Hunting season for black bears starts on Saturday. On the Cumberland Plateau, bear hunters are limited to archery equipment only; firearms are not permitted. The hunting season concludes on October 19. In Scott County, hunting is limited to private lands west of U.S. Hwy. 27. The Big South Fork NRRA is considered a black bear sanctuary and is off-limits to hunters. Each licensed hunter can kill one adult black bear per year. Sows cannot be killed if they’re accompanied by a cub (bears weighing less than 75 pounds).