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Bear prompts partial closing on Appalachian Trail

POSTED: April 7, 2009 11:30 p.m.

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Every March and April, more than 1,000 people set out from Springer Mountain near Amicalola Falls State Park, attempting to “thru-hike” the entire 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail.

And almost every year, a clever bear figures out that these backpackers are carrying a smorgasbord of tasty treats.

Backcountry campers are cautioned never to bring food inside their tents overnight. Whenever possible, they’re supposed to hang their food bag from a pulley line or high tree branch.

But those measures haven’t deterred one particularly resourceful Georgia bear. In late March, the U.S. Forest Service closed a 6-mile stretch of the A.T. to campers, citing bear activity in the area.

The restricted section runs from Neels Gap, just east of Blood Mountain, to Tesnatee Gap. It includes the Wolf Laurel Top and Cowrock Mountain campsites, where hikers have reported a bear stealing food and backpacks.

The bear has allegedly learned how to chew through a rope to make a suspended pack fall to the ground. Hikers have tried shouting and banging on things to scare the bear away, but according to the reports, the animal just glances at them and then goes back to chowing down on the stolen food.

“This bear hasn’t been aggressive toward people,” said Mitch Cohen, spokesman for the Chattahoochee National Forest. “But it doesn’t seem to be afraid of people, and that’s the first step (toward aggression).”

All of the A.T. is still open for hiking, but the Forest Service decided to prohibit overnight stays on that 6-mile segment after consulting with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

“What we’re hoping is that if we close that area to camping for a certain period of time, the bear doesn’t get any food reward and the habit dies,” said Scott Frazier, a wildlife biologist with the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division in Gainesville.

“If they go hungry for four or five days, usually they go elsewhere to look for something to eat.”

Ideally, the bear would retreat back into the woods. But it’s equally likely that a bear might look for other campsites on a different part of the A.T.

Frazier said over the past few months, bear problems have also been reported at other points on the trail, including the Blood Mountain shelter.

“There’s no way of knowing if it’s the same bear,” he said.

But just one week after the area around Tesnatee Gap was closed to camping, a bear showed up farther west on the A.T., displaying some very familiar behavior.

“(Sunday) night, we had a report of a bear hanging around Blood Mountain shelter,” said Ryan Davis, an employee at the Mountain Crossings hiking store.

The business is located at Neels Gap on U.S. 129, between the closed area and Blood Mountain.

“The bear climbed up into a tree and grabbed the food bag they had hung up there,” Davis said. “They said they made noise but they couldn’t scare it away. It was determined to get the food.”

That doesn’t bode well for this bear. If it persists in seeing humans as a source for food, DNR rangers may try to capture the bear and move it to another area.

And relocation doesn’t always work. Two years ago, a bear developed a tactic of approaching hikers on the Georgia A.T., trying to scare people into dropping their packs. That bear ended up having to be euthanized.

Frazier said rangers are less tolerant of aggressive bears than they used to be. In the past decade, two people have been killed in separate bear attacks in East Tennessee. Black bears had always been considered far less dangerous than grizzlies, but now biologists aren’t so sure.

“We’re no longer putting a bear back out there after recapturing it again and again for the same offense,” said Frazier. “Georgia’s bear management plan was changed last year to reflect the modern thinking that sometimes euthanasia is necessary.”

He said spring is a worrisome time of year for wildlife managers. “This is when bears and people come together,” he said. “People are out on the trails and in campgrounds, and the bears are hungry. The plants are not fully leafed out, and there’s very little edible growth out there.”

There are an estimated 1,500 black bears in North Georgia, all competing for a limited supply of food. But traditionally, the A.T. is not the easiest place to get a meal.

“Most of the thru-hikers are conscientious and follow the recommended guidelines (for storing food),” said Frazier. “Bear problems are more common in developed campgrounds than on the A.T. Picnic tables and trash cans — that’s a recipe for bears.”

In June 2007, a man killed a 300-pound bear that was stealing food at Low Gap campground in White County. The Forest Service cited him for not properly storing his food.

Frazier said the most important measure is to keep anything edible locked up (in a vehicle, if possible) where a bear can’t get to it.
And if you do come face-to-face with a bear, don’t remain silent.

“Make sure the bear is aware of you,” said Frazier. “History indicates most bad bear encounters involve surprise. Back away slowly while continuing to look at the bear. Then as soon as you have access to a phone, report the encounter to the Forest Service or the DNR.”



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