It's Time to Get Bear-Wise

September 30th, 2020

There’s an old saying... a fed bear is a dead bear. Saturday’s outcome reflects this. So how do we prevent this scenario from repeating?

Written by Tish Gailmard, Director of Wildlife

By now, most everyone has heard about the downtown Chattanooga bear. If not, here’s a quick synopsis: on Saturday, September 26, 2020, a black bear made his way into several areas of downtown Chattanooga including passing by an outdoor church service, walking across the lawn at the Bessie Smith Hall and areas near UTC campus. Needless to say, this caused a huge stir. People followed the bear to take pictures and videos, a procession of Chattanooga police cruisers followed the bear, large crowds of people gathered and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) was called in. Tennessee’s black bear population is growing with Hamilton County listed in the seasonal/transient and infrequent sighting category. A bear in any city’s downtown area is not a good thing, and that’s what officers were facing on Saturday. 

Ultimately, the most problematic issue was the huge crowd and the ability to ensure onlookers’ safety. TWRA advocates for animals as well as humans, and both were a factor in Saturday’s controversial and unpleasant decision to shoot the bear. I have contacted a local TWRA officer as well as  TWRA’s Region III Information & Education Officer Mime Barnes, who stated, “This was and never is the desired outcome. This bear was previously tagged and relocated from Sevier County to Polk County. The bear was habituated to human food and trash. The bear was spotted in Bledsoe County and then Hamilton.”

Let’s stop and consider exactly what was happening. There was a black bear walking through downtown Chattanooga attracting a huge crowd as he made his way to different areas. People were videoing and trying to take selfies with the bear. Chattanooga police cruisers started following the bear, and then TWRA arrived. They noted that the bear was tagged, meaning he had been captured before. The bear was highly stressed by the unfamiliar situation and crowds and eventually took cover in a culvert. A huge crowd formed in the immediate area. The bear continued to show signs of stress and discomfort. Tranquilizing equipment was not on-site and would not take effect immediately because animals run once shot with a tranquilizing dart and must be pursued. Keeping the crowd of humans safe was the priority and the situation became less stable with the high potential for human injury. 

That’s quite the scenario and one in which no one wants to find themselves. Assessing the entire situation, past, present, and future and taking into account multiple outcomes, making a decision that follows protocols and making it in the right amount of time to prevent anyone’s injury is not simple. It’s a wildlife chess game. 

Barnes stated, “Bears that lose their fear of humans and associate humans and food can pose a threat to human safety. Tranquilizing and relocating bears aren’t the best solutions. Tranquilizers don’t have an immediate effect and therefore, this specific bear would have run towards people, regardless of its chosen route. So many had followed it.” 

Officers had to make a very difficult decision in a short time frame.

Now imagine this alternate scenario: as the bear made his way through town, a small police presence remained at a distance, crowds did not gather, TWRA was able to capture the bear with minimal stress. But then what do you do with a bear that is habituated to humans? It is not right or safe to keep moving a habituated animal into new areas. Wildlife that loses its respect and fear of humans poses a potential threat. You simply cannot continue passing along the problem — it’s unethical and unsafe. As Barnes explained, this individual “had already been relocated and it would be unfair to move this bear to another community. Moving a problem and a safety concern isn’t right. We also must take humane measures. This animal was extremely stressed. Officers follow protocol, but their main goal is public safety.”

Many suggested locating the bear to a sanctuary. Wild animals that are habituated to humans do not always fare well in captivity and can pose a safety concern to the caregivers while living in an unnatural existence. Could you imagine a wild male bear that is used to roaming his home range of up to 300 square miles, that has no physical limitations preventing his success in the wild, but associates humans with food, being placed in captivity?  What kind of quality of life would he have? What safety concerns would he present to his caregivers? It’s not a good solution.

The answer to Saturday’s scenario is unpleasant, appears uncaring, unthoughtful and goes against what most people think should have happened, but was the best solution to a horrible situation where there was no outcome that would be universally accepted. The best choice is what happened — shoot the bear — but a choice with which no one is happy, including wildlife officers. This event will weigh heavily on them. 

We have to remember, we humans caused this situation however long ago when this bear was fed or given access to human food. That was his demise, and it’s our fault. 

There’s an old saying... a fed bear is a dead bear. Saturday’s outcome reflects this. So how do we prevent this scenario from repeating? Get bear-wise. We have developed the land they inhabit. We live on the edge of their home ranges and in their forests. So, get smart — learn to live in bear territory. Bears have adapted to living near people, now it’s up to us to adapt to living near bears.

Number one rule: don’t feed bears or any wildlife, intentionally or unintentionally. Leaving pet food out; dirty, greasy grills; garbage; and recycling is an invitation for a free meal and creates an association of humans with food. I always tell everyone that bears have a tremendous sense of smell. Not only do they smell the can of beans in your campground or garbage, but they smell the person who packed the beans in that can at the factory. 

Don’t ever approach bears. They look cute and cuddly and it’s tempting to get a picture — don’t do it. Bears are wild, strong, and will defend themselves if approached; and this is the way they should be.

If you’ve got active bears in your area, remove your bird feeders. Birdfeed and grains have lots of calories and are attractive to bears. 

Alert your neighbors to any local bear activity. Not too long ago, there was a black bear on Signal Mountain. He was seen by many and videoed on several security cameras. Neighbors were alerted, but no one panicked, no one followed him, no one fed him and he went on his way without incident.

Bears are omnivores who eat meat, fruits, and veggies. explains that "fall is power eating time for bears:"

Their appetites are biologically programmed to go into hyperdrive in the fall because they need to put on a thick layer of life-sustaining fat before they turn in for the winter. This annual power eating marathon is called hyperphagia.

Hyperphagia is in full swing now because many fruits and berries (soft mast) are still available, calorie-dense acorns and nuts (hard mast) are ripening, and bears’ body clocks are ticking louder and louder. During hyperphagia, bears are like Olympic athletes in training. They must consume ten times as many calories as they need during the spring and summer if they’re going to den up in tip-top shape. That means finding 20,000 calories a day or more. That’s a lot of nuts and berries. 

Depending on the availability of natural foods, bears may need to travel long distances well outside of their normal ranges to find enough calories. They seldom sleep more than three or four hours a day. They are sleep-deprived, constantly on the prowl, and myopically focused on finding as much food as possible. So they can be more willing to take risks, like venturing near homes, campgrounds, and trails, and trying to cross busy highways.

For further bear education, I strongly urge you to check out It's a well-done site with comprehensive and valuable information.

The bear event in downtown Chattanooga was a horrible situation with a horrible outcome. Do your part to prevent it from happening again. As states — our job is to give bears plenty of space to live and to find their own healthy, natural foods. Their safety and ours depend on how we behave in bear country.

Posted by Tish Gailmard  | Category: wildlife

Every year, the red wolf Management Team gets together to plan next year’s red wolf breeding season at our annual red wolf Species Survival Plan (RWSSP) Summit meeting. As a member of the management team and Reflection Riding’s institutional representative, I always attend this meeting. It’s usually hosted by a cooperator, but this year we opted for a virtual meeting. It’s very exciting and insightful to visit other facilities to see their operation, enclosures, and facility, and we really missed that this year. The meeting  usually consists of 2-3 days of all things red wolf with lively discussions, tours, key speakers and a main goal of creating breeding and companion pairs for the next year’s breeding season. 

Why do we create breeding pairs — they don’t breed without help? Well, it’s slightly complicated.

As one of the goals from a review of the red wolf Recovery Program, we are charged by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) with doubling the current population under human care. There are currently 250 red wolves at 41 institutions. Every red wolf pedigree is contained in a software program, and we rely on this program and the expertise of a geneticist to help us create breeding pairs. Our goal is to breed red wolves who are the most unrelated. With only 14 founding parents, our gene pool is very limited, and we have to work hard to maintain genetic diversity of this critically endangered species. Red wolves are also only viable one time per year — females go into estrus and males produce sperm only in mid-winter. 

Our geneticist helps us determine a mean kinship value that we try to achieve if a litter were produced by a red wolf pair. In the simplest of terms, we select wolves that are the most unrelated to breed with one another in order to produce offspring that are the most unrelated to the current population. We look at each individual and whether they are currently overrepresented in the population. If they are, they will have a high mean kinship value and will most likely not be selected to breed. For instance, our male wolf Colbert has been selected to breed because his genes are underrepresented in the population, meaning he has a low mean kinship value. He has never sired a litter, and is currently the most genetically valuable red wolf in human care. He was paired with a female last year at our facility, but they did not produce any offspring. If they had, Colbert’s genes would be represented in the population and his mean kinship value would have risen for this breeding season. 

A lot of factors go into possible pairings besides relatedness. We also consider space at each facility; the needs and wants of each facility; red wolf personality and size; age of the animal; whether the animal is proven; how far a red wolf has to travel to make a transfer; and if the transfer be done by automobile. It gets complicated quickly!

The management team, led by the coordinator for the captive program, comprises a handful of institutional representatives that have been involved in the RWSSP for many years. We work together very well and each person has a job during the process. We have several people taking notes on what pairs we create, one person calculating miles the wolf will need to travel, one person actually moves the note that has the wolf’s studbook number on it from one facility to the receiving institution, and several people watch the overall process to make sure we don’t miss anything that needs to be attended to. Red hearts and smiley faces are drawn for breeding pairs, and the process begins to flow.

Another factor our geneticist helps us with is knowing how many pairs to create to increase, decrease or maintain the current population. Knowing we needed to increase our population, our goal this year was to create 35-40 pairs. We ran out of enclosures at 30 pairs! There will be several new institutions joining the RWSSP and housing red wolves in the next few years, but we still need more space.

With your financial support we can continue to care for our red wolves and build new enclosures to house more, and achieve the goal put before us: restoring the red wolf sustainably to its native territory of the southeastern United States.

In more news from the meeting, on 1.7 million acres in northeastern North Carolina — the only location in the entire world where wild red wolves live — there are nine known red wolves, with the possibility of five to 10 more. There are an additional five red wolves at St. Vincent’s National Wildlife Refuge (SVNWR), which is an island propagation site off the coast of Appalachicola, FL. With the wild population so low and no litters produced in the last two years, biologists have moved some SVNWR animals to northeastern North Carolina to hopefully build some breeding pairs. This process involves locating and trapping the SVNWR animals, moving them to the North Carolina recovery site, and placing them in an acclimation pen with a wild red wolf that was located and trapped. After a period of time, the animals are released with the hope they will remain together and breed. The biologists will track these animals to determine if they have paired. 

We also received an update on the pup, Phoenix, that was born at Reflection Riding last season. After her siblings did not survive, she was fostered into another litter of pups at Rowan Wildlife Park in NC and is thriving. She was readily accepted by her new siblings and mother. This fostering process is something the RWSSP successfully did in the wild population for many years, and has only been done at a few captive facilities. Many thanks to Rowan Wild and their team for taking on Phoenix and helping us save her.

We also learned more about the canids discovered near Galveston Island, TX, who continue to be studied. This population has proven to contain some red wolf ghost alleles, with some animals having a high percentage of red wolf genes. This area was the last known location of red wolves prior to 1980, and it’s believed the red wolf gene has sustained in some percentage given the inbreeding with coyotes. Trapping and testing will continue with the goal of determining how much red wolf ancestry is contained in this population. Data will be collected, morphological measurements will be taken, and animals will be collared and released.

Any quail hunters out there? I know many, and they should be excited to read the following. A new study is once again proving the value of apex predators in maintaining healthy populations of other animals — in this case, the bobwhite quail. Aubrey Lanier, Wildlands Network field intern and North Carolina State University student majoring in Forest Management, is focusing on bobwhite quail research and their relationship with red wolf survival. 

“The data collected from surveying quail across the Albemarle Peninsula, including Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, was aimed at better understanding the importance of top carnivores such as red wolves for the survival of quail populations, underscoring the interdependence of different species within the ecosystem,” stated Lanier. “In theory, having wolves around could help control populations of mesopredators such as raccoons and opossums. This, in turn, could reduce the amount of quail nests the mesopredators are able to consume.”  

When the meeting is over, we all go back to our facilities to continue our work with red wolves and to prepare for any transfers that may take place. Reflection Riding is excited to announce we will breed two of our existing wolves, Ruby and Apollo; we will bring in a female wolf from Wolf Conservation Center in NY to breed with one of our males, Colbert, the most genetically valuable male in the population; and we will bring in an older male from Chehaw Wildlife Park in GA to be a companion to our older female, Sequoyah. Keep your fingers crossed and do the puppy dance for two litters to be born next spring!

This meeting is always a time of fun, rejuvenation, exciting news, development of new ideas and, most importantly, a time to highlight our work in saving the red wolf from extinction. It takes a team of dedicated individuals to do this and Reflection Riding is proud to work closely with this program. Since 1996, Reflection Riding has been part of the RWSSP — housing, breeding and educating folks about red wolves and their critical importance to our ecology. Please support us in this crucial endeavor to save and conserve the most endangered canid in the world. Howl, yes!

About the Author

Tish Gailmard is the Director of Wildlife Conservation and has been part of the Reflection Riding team since 2000. Since she was a child, spending her days playing and exploring in the woods, Tish has loved animals. Tish is a graduate of the University of Georgia and is a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency licensed rehabilitator for mammals and rabies vector species.

Help us save the endangered

american red wolf.

Show your red wolf pride and help support our program. Thanks to our designer, Chris Lykins of Lost Art Stationery, we have some great t-shirts available. The more you purchase, the more we cover our program expenses. Plus, you get a great conversation-starter for your friends who may not even know about American red wolves. 

Posted by Tish Gailmard  | Category: red wolf

Red Wolf Litter Update

April 21st, 2020

Today, Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center is sad to announce that the recent red wolf litter was not viable. In the early days after the initial announcement last week, their team provided excellent care and kept a close eye on the litter, and on first-time mother, Ruby. Unfortunately, it became clear that the litter was likely not going to be viable although one pup survived through the weekend.

While Reflection Riding, and other organizations like it, generally do not intervene with nature, their team made the decision to cross-foster the remaining individual with a successful litter in North Carolina, at one of our partner organizations. That transfer happened on Monday and the litter that she’s been fostered into has accepted her. As part of a larger nationwide effort to recover the red wolf population, they work closely with other cooperators and are hopeful that through this transfer, strong partnerships will grow even stronger for the future. 

"We all know that loss is a regular part of the breeding process for wild animals, and that the first few weeks are quite tentative, but it was still a shock for all of us," said Mark McKnight, President and CEO at Reflection Riding. “It was especially so for our animal care team, which is an incredibly dedicated bunch. They really love these animals and are devoted to them.”

The Reflection Riding family is disappointed and feeling some emotion at the loss of these red wolves. Science, however, will guide them through. Given the critically endangered status of the American red wolf, every single birth is important. Fewer than 300 red wolves, once a top predator in the southeastern United States, live in the wild and under human care. For this reason, it is also critical that the strongest genes are passed along in the overall red wolf population. 

Chris Lasher, coordinator of the endangered American red wolf program nationally, noted during discussions over the last several days that he “would certainly recommend Ruby for breeding again in the future.” In the past, first-time mother wolves who have not had success with their first litters were later able to rear a litter successfully. As a long time and highly involved Red Wolf Species Survival Plan partner, the Reflection Riding team remains committed to this program and will celebrate the other births around the country this month while remaining hopeful for another litter next year. Their staff looks forward to sharing news and photos from the litter in North Carolina. 

In 2007, 2011 and 2016, Reflection Riding’s red wolves produced successful litters. Reflection Riding’s American red wolves are part of a national breeding program, the American Red Wolf Recovery Program and have been since 1996. Once common throughout the southeastern United States, American red wolves are the most endangered canid in the world. Learn more about the critically endangered status of the American red wolf here, from our partners at Defenders of Wildlife.  

Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center is an environmental learning hub that reconnects Chattanoogans with nature. Filling an important need for outdoor experience in our technology-driven world, we envision a healthier, more creative city whose residents become stewards of their natural surroundings. We create nature-based experiences that spark curiosity about the natural world, particularly for those with limited access or barriers to engagement with natural environments. Each year, more than 26,000 people have some of their most formative experiences in nature with us, including more than 16,000 school children. Set on more than 300 captivating acres, Reflection Riding is part public park, part nature center, part wild land, just minutes from downtown. Learn more at

Posted by Tish Gailmard

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