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. Bearwise.org 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 bearwise.org. 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 bearwise.org 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

With Red Wolf mating season almost over, Director of Wildlife Tish Gailmard explains that it's near impossible to tell whether a female wolf is pregnant until the pups are born. We hope this year brings another litter! Read Tish's explanation below of why Red Wolf breeding is a concern worth your attention as well as different methods for breeding the captive population.

Photo by Bartel/USFWS

The Red Wolf is the most endangered canid in the world. With only 27-35 wild Red Wolves roaming one recovery release site in northeastern North Carolina and 200 in captivity, breeding can be critical to this species’ survival.

Reflection Riding is a breeding and exhibit facility for Red Wolves and has been since its membership in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan began in 1996. We’ve had litters in 2007, 2011 and 2016.

You might ask what’s the big deal? Why is Red Wolf breeding a concern?

There a few things you need to know.

First of all, we almost lost this species to extinction. In 1980, the Red Wolf was forced into extinction in the wild to conserve the last 17 remaining Red Wolves. Of these 17, only 14 were strong enough to begin a captive breeding program to save this species. That’s a really small gene pool. When you are breeding an endangered species in captivity, it is critical to maintain genetic diversity - we must diversify and grow the family tree. That means hyper vigilance over the breeding co-efficient. We must select Red Wolves to breed that are the least genetically alike. Luckily, science provides the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (RWSSP) with a software program that tracks each Red Wolf’s pedigree - a road map of who’s closely related and who’s less related. Wouldn’t want to breed siblings, right? The idea is for the family tree to fork! 

Secondly, Red Wolves and coyotes can breed. This causes a serious dilution of genes resulting in hybrid offspring. Hybridization can quickly kill the family tree.

Thirdly, Red Wolves only breed one time per year. Males only produce sperm one time per year and females only go into estrus one time per year.  

So what do we do with all this information?

In captivity, we must determine which Red Wolves will breed based on their genetic value and we have to find a suitable mate - one who is the least related. As an institutional representative and management team member, I attend a summit meeting each summer where we determine who’s going to breed with whom based on the needs of the population. We must determine how many litters need to be produced to maintain or grow the population (whichever is deemed necessary for that breeding season), refer to the mean kinship list ( a measure of importance of an animal. Animals with low mean kinship are genetically important.  Mean kinship is calculated by the kinship (relatedness) of that animal with the entire current population (including itself). Therefore mean kinships per animal are relative to the current population) and begin the process of matchmaking. 

We’ve transferred Red Wolves to breed at our facility from as far away as Sioux Falls, SD. Red Wolves do not fly commercially, so all this travel requires driving or private planes. Usually, two institutions will pick a midpoint to meet and pick up or drop off a Red Wolf. Once the Red Wolf arrives at its new facility, there is usually an acclimation period (we call it a Hey, Howdy! time) where the Red Wolves are separated by fencing and have limited visual sight and physical proximity. After about 1 week of this introduction, the Red Wolves are placed in the same enclosure and with a little luck, (cue the Barry White music) they like each other and the relationship begins.

Red Wolf breeding season is January, February, March with the most northwestern facilities typically breeding last. After a 63 day gestation, pups are born in April and May. Litters can range from 1-9 pups. Eyes and ears open after 2 weeks and pups begin to wander out of the birthing place after about 5 weeks.

In the wild population, we do not engineer the breeding. Red Wolves select their own mates. To prevent Red Wolves from mating with coyotes and producing offspring - creative, out of the box thinking biologists came up with an innovative idea - a first in canid recovery. Sterilize coyotes in the recovery area and put them back on the landscape as place holders. Because this is their territory, they will hold out any fertile coyotes who try to move in and if they breed a Red Wolf, no offspring will occur. Brilliant and very successful! (Unfortunately, this has been halted by the state of North Carolina and US Fish and Wildlife based on a gross misinterpretation of data and inaccurate data- more on that in another entry.)

Another out of the box idea is introducing new genes into the wild population with cross fostering. When wild litters and captive litters are born within a few days of one another, captive pups can be fostered into a wild litter and are accepted by the mother with 100% success. This  genius idea is also a first in canid recovery. (and yes, it too has been halted by North Carolina and USFW). Less politics, more wolves!

In some cases when a genetically valuable Red Wolf has not bred, artificial insemination can be an option. Reflection Riding was fortunate enough to participate in this research. All of our current males have been collected and cryopreserved for future use. The research team that worked on this project consisted of our veterinarian, Dr. Chris Keller and his team from Mountain Hospital for Animals and two post doc students, one from the Smithsonian Conservation Institute and another who was on the team that first developed artificial insemination in dogs.

Luckily, Red Wolves breed fairly well in the wild and in captivity provided they are with the correct mate and are of breeding age. Reflection Riding has been fortunate enough to have successful pairs and hope to produce more litters in the future. As a very involved cooperator in the RWSSP, it’s our duty to support this program and this magnificent species. 

Red Wolves are...beauty, not beast and vital, not vicious.

Posted by Tish Gailmard  | Category: Wildlife

Share this page