Giving the Bear Some Space - TribPapers

Giving the Bear Some Space

An eight-mile stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway has been closed indefinitely because a bear cub has been hanging out with humans. Park rangers say this is dangerous, and they want the bear to have enough time to "lose interest" in the friendly overlook.

Asheville – Locals know the roads don’t work in Asheville. They’ve been repurposed as meeting venues. People only go on I-26 if they’re looking for a date. It’s like the old cruising days on Patton Avenue, except you don’t have to move your car when the light changes. You can just roll down your window and chat it up with your new friend as you bide the gridlock hours.

The local roads don’t circulate traffic, either. The lights are so long, locals know they can get some of their best work done during multiple cycles of long red lights. Then there’s the occasional slow-moving vehicle and road block. Then – What’s this? The Blue Ridge Parkway is now closed indefinitely between Milepost 367.6, serving the Craggy Gardens picnic area, and Milepost 375.6 at Ox Creek Road. Tonight, Google Maps is directing traffic down to US 70, through Swannanoa, Black Mountain, and Old Fort. The fastest route between the two points, 8 miles apart, is now 69 miles long with a drive time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.

It’s reminiscent of a weekend trip made years ago, before the days of GPS. The plan was to catch a plane out of BNA and fly out to San Diego. Unfortunately, there was a rockslide blocking the interstate, and the posted detour took everybody on a two-lane, winding road through Gatlinburg, Dollywood, and every tourist trap between here and there. Was this a cruel ruse to force leaf-lookers to slowly drive past all the mom-and-pop shops that have been suffering sagging tourism revenues all year?

According to the National Park Service, the answer is no. In a press release, they stated that they had received, over a two-week period, numerous reports of several people “feeding and attempting to hold a young bear” at the Lane Pinnacle Overlook. According to current best practices, this is not good.

The NPS explains that bears are using their bear brains to figure out how to get food, and if people give them food, they will soon associate people with food. That could lead to them approaching anything looking like those humans who have been such generous providers of nutrition, when, in fact, the individuals they are now approaching are dreadfully afraid of bears and will honestly report the approach as life-threatening. That will result in the bear being labeled as dangerous, and put the park service in the horrible position of having to kill him.

In an alternative scenario, the bear may act more aggressively because he can’t understand what he’s not doing to get this challenging group of humans to give him their food. Either way, the NPS does not want people or bears to get hurt, so they laid down some rules. Anyone attempting to feed an animal while visiting a national park can be fined up to $5,000 and sentenced to up to six months. Anyone intentionally coming within 50 yards of a bear, or any distance that “disturbs or displaces” a bear, can also be fined and arrested. While the NPS does not state limits, a woman faced $10,000 in fines and one year in jail for getting too close to grizzlies in Yellowstone two years ago.

The NPS also implores patrons to keep food out of sight and out of smell. Food, to a bear, may mean the edible and inedible parts of human food, garbage, and even toothpaste or deodorant. The NPS wants these items, while not in use, packed in odor-tight containers and hidden in locked cars. The NPS wants to know when visitors encounter bears, and they ask that they be notified via 828-298-2491 or an in-person stop at the nearest visitor center.

Biologists from the North Carolina Wildlife Commission have published guidelines on how to keep bears at bay and avoid an attack. A set of contradictory instructions is, meanwhile, being published by CNN and its affiliates in its coverage of this event. Chalk another one up to that growing list of things for which one must check his voter registration to determine his response.

The eight-mile stretch was closed indefinitely on October 30. Unlike those icy, cold winter days when the whole world decides it would be very cool to get out on the parkway while vehicles are banned, this time, cyclists and pedestrians are banned as well. Multiple rangers have explained the closure as necessary for the bear to “lose interest” in the area he’d been frequenting. Meanwhile, families wanting to gather around the picnic table for Thanksgiving may still access Craggy Gardens from the north via NC 80. The visitor center at Milepost 364.5 will, however, remain closed.