Officials stress safety as bears increasingly sighted in Middle Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — State officials are reminding residents and visitors to be vigilant during the summer travel season as more bear sightings are reported in Middle Tennessee.

Statewide, there are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 bears in Tennessee. According to Dan Gibbs, the Black Bear Coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), the majority of bears are found east of Cookeville.

However, the agency has been getting more reports from Middle Tennessee each year. Occasional sightings have also been reported as far as West Tennessee, with residents and visitors typically encountering bears more as the weather beings to warm up in the summer months.

“We have seen that bears are slowly expanding their range back into Middle and West Tennessee,” said TWRA Black Bear Support Biologist Janelle Musser. “Typically, we see the most bear activity this time of year, so early spring when bears have come out of hibernation and there’s not a ton of natural foods available right now. That’s when we see a lot of bear activity.”

The TWRA alone receives more than 1,200 bear-conflict reports annually. That does not include reports from parks, police departments or other agencies. Officials said most calls, or about 80%, are related to bears accessing trash.

Going hand in hand with more bear sightings, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) tends to see an increase in litter on the state’s roadways and along scenic byways as more people travel in the summer. Officials said this attracts bears and other wildlife to the roadways and endangers not only the animals, but motorists as well.

“It is really important to properly secure food and garbage from bears. A lot of times people don’t think it’s that big of a deal, but in the long run it causes bears to get really used to people,” Musser said. “They start getting used to being around our cars, around our homes, around our businesses, our pets, and that’s when bears start to change their natural behaviors. They no longer have that fear of people.”

To keep bears and other wildlife from accessing food waste and to help spread the message about litter prevention, TDOT has installed 80 Nobody Trashes Tennessee-branded bear-proof trash cans along seven of the state’s 13 scenic byways.

Three of those scenic byways are in Middle Tennessee, including Woodlands Trace, Tennessee River Trail and Cumberland National Scenic Byway. According to TDOT, the heavy-duty containers are specifically designed to withstand the curiosity and strength of bears.

“Black bears are one of Tennessee’s state treasures, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep them wild and keep them alive,” Gibbs said. “Bear management experience has shown that bears attracted to human food sources, or that are deliberately fed by humans, have a relatively short life.”