Bear frenzy over acorns attracts a crowd

Sometimes Bill Stiver, a wildlife biologist in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, feels more like a social scientist than animal expert — especially when it comes to bears and tourists.

Last week, a passel of eight black bears grazing on acorns along the side of the road in the park attracted hordes of tourists scrambling to get pictures, causing a traffic jam for nearly a mile. With winter around the corner and acorns a hot commodity this year, the mayhem surrounding the foraging bears was a daily occurrence for most of the week.

“Basically we have two rangers stationed over there full time trying to keep control of the situation,” Stiver said. “At this point we are just managing the people.”

From parking in the middle of the road to getting too close with their cameras, it took some education. The bears, on the other hand, were a bit easier to handle and tried to ignore all the hub-bub.

“All they want is to eat these acorns, so they are a little more tolerant of people than usual. The bears were focused on eating. They are just thinking ‘I need this food to get me through the winter,’” Stiver said.

The bears were more tolerant of each other as well. Bears don’t travel in packs, so having eight of them in proximity is uncommon.

There’s good news and bad news this year when it comes to the acorn crop the bears’ primary staple for fattening up before winter sets in. The late-spring freeze that zapped the mountain’s apple harvest — along with people’s dogwoods and other trees — also zapped the oaks.

At lower elevations, oak trees had already begun flowering. When their flowers were killed by the freeze, that meant no fall acorns. The good news is that oak trees at higher elevations hadn’t started flowering yet when the late-spring freeze hit. Those oaks went on to produce acorns just fine.

“There was a lot of concern that the freeze would impact the acorns, which is the main food source for the bears in the fall,” Stiver said. “But as you get higher in elevation, above 3,000 feet, it’s almost a bumper crop. It’s not nearly as gloom and doom as people made it out to be.”

While most bears won’t have to head into winter hungry, those who live below 3,000 feet will have to work a bit harder to get their acorn fix. They can push higher on the mountain to get acorns that weren’t zapped by the freeze, or they can venture into subdivisions to hit up garbage cans and birdfeeders.

Or, they can seek out the rare oak pockets at lower elevations that were spared from the freeze. It appears that’s what the eight bears were doing along the side of the road in the park last week. Warmth from the pavement and extra sunlight provided by the road opening spared oaks along the road from being zapped, even though they had already put out their flowers when the spring freeze hit. The same can’t be said for oaks in the nearby forest, Stiver said. Stiver guesses that’s why the bears were so fixated on the acorns on the roadside.

There had also been fears the drought would jeopardize the important fall food for bears. But that hasn’t turned out to be the case.

“People were also concerned about the drought, but from what we’ve seen, white oak acorns seem to be pretty abundant and pretty widespread,” Stiver said.

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