DNA results show a bear euthanized by Great Smoky Mountains National Park staff was not responsible for the bear attack near Spence Field Backcountry Shelter.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials received results of DNA analyses comparing samples from bears found near the Spence Field Backcountry Shelter area where a bear attack occurred on May 10, 2016 involving a 49-year old hiker who was bitten while sleeping in his tent near the shelter. Two separate analyses were performed. The first analysis compared a sample of bear saliva from the hiker’s chewed belongings and a sample from a male bear euthanized from the same area a few days later on May 13. The second analysis compared a sample from the hiker’s belongings and a male bear from the area that was captured and released with a GPS-tracking collar on May 20. Based on the DNA analyses, neither of these two bears matched the bear responsible for the attack.
Over the last year, park managers have developed new protocols and techniques that support using DNA as a viable option in confirming matches before euthanasia in many situations. The park now has an agreement with a lab capable of providing DNA analysis in a timely manner. Park managers also secured viable options for facilities capable of safely holding wild bears captive temporarily. At the Spence Field backcountry location, transporting the bears 6 miles out of the backcountry by a ground crew to a holding facility was not considered a practical option.
Wildlife biologists have also developed GPS-tracking techniques that allow managers to consider collecting a DNA sample from a suspect bear and then releasing it with a GPS-tracking collar. With this technology, managers now have the opportunity to monitor and locate the bear as needed while waiting for the DNA analysis. Park biologists attempted this alternative with the bear captured on May 13 from Spence Field, but were unable to fit a collar securely on the bear’s extremely large neck. Staff was able to use this technology with the 200-pound male bear captured on May 20.
“Bears are iconic symbols in the Smokies and a decision to euthanize an animal is not made lightly,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “Park staff have worked diligently over the last year to develop viable alternatives to euthanasia. Understandably, these options won’t be appropriate responses for every bear incident. In the interest of responsibly protecting hiker safety in America’s most visited national park, we make our decisions based on the best available information for each particular situation.”
Due to the backcountry location and the size of the 400-pound bear captured on May 13, management options were extremely limited. Park wildlife biologists recommended euthanasia of the bear based on a combination of factors including the presence of dental injuries consistent with the hiker’s bite wound, the size and gender of the bear, and being the first and only bear present near the scene of the attack. The large, dominant male bear fit the profile of a bear expected to have been responsible for the attack. The serious incident included not only an aggressive bite through a tent, but also repeated attempts to enter the victim’s tent. The victim had properly stored his food on the aerial food storage cables.
While human injury is rare, we have recently had multiple incidents of bears ripping into tents in the backcountry. The months of May and June are particularly difficult for bears due to the lack of abundant natural foods. Summer foods, primarily berries, will begin to ripen over the next several weeks and we historically see less aggressive bear behavior after that point. Hikers are reminded to take necessary precautions while in bear country including hiking in groups of 2 or more, carrying bear spray, complying with all backcountry closures, properly storing food regulations, and remaining at safe viewing distance from bears at all times.
The Spence Field Backcountry shelter remains closed and wildlife staff continue to monitor the site for additional bear activity. For more information on what to do if you encounter a bear while hiking, please visit the park website at www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/black-bears.htm. To report a bear attack or incident, please call 865-436-1230.