An eight-mile stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville has been temporarily closed due to a string of “human and bear interactions,” the National Parks Service announced. Recently, visitors to this area have been documented “feeding and attempting to hold a young bear,” which led NPS officials to restrict access to this scenic route.
In an October 30th press release, NPS officials cited safety concerns for the bears and visitors as their primary reason for shutting down the Parkway.
“When people intentionally attract bears with trash and food, it can lead to very dangerous situations,” Tracy Swartout, the Blue Ridge Parkway’s superintendent said. “In this instance, we want to give the bear a chance to lose interest in the area before the situation escalates and visitors or the bear are harmed.”
According to the NPS, fall is a critical time for bears. During the season, bears spend up to 20 hours a day foraging for food in an attempt to put on weight for the winter and hibernation. This period of relative activity has led many bears, especially those around the Parkway, to interact more with human passersby in search of a few last food scraps. To help prevent further incidents, the NPS advises park visitors and neighbors to follow bear safety tips available at BearWise.org and to keep food out of sight.
Just as fall is a significant season for bears, it is also a vital time for the tourism industry throughout Western North Carolina. This is mainly because “leaf peepers” flock to the area in droves searching for the beautiful fall colors that dot the Appalachian landscape at this time of year. Over the peak leaf-peeping window of September through November, North Carolina’s economy gains roughly $1 billion from approximately 5.2 million visitors from all across the globe.
The economic impact of temporarily closing a stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway at the height of the area’s tourist season could be dire. The Parkway itself was the single most visited NPS site in 2022, though these numbers are slightly inflated due to the Parkway’s role as a highway.
The overall black bear population is growing in Western North Carolina. In the 1970s, fewer than 1,000 black bears lived in the area, but today, somewhere in the range of 6,000 to 8,000 black bears call Western North Carolina home. This rapid population growth, coupled with the increased popularity of towns like Boone and Asheville, creates a situation where humans and bears are competing for relatively limited space. Black bears have even been spotted at higher frequency around densely populated areas like Asheville’s City Hall, though these events are still relatively uncommon.
The North Carolina State Parks Department issued these suggestions for any would-be campers or hikers:
- “BE AWARE, try to make noise periodically, and don’t use earbuds. (The bear more than likely hates your taste in music and podcasts anyway.)
- DON’T HIKE ALONE, if possible! Take someone with you. (Whether you choose someone who looks more appetizing than you is your business, but keep in mind that beauty is in the eye of the bear-holder.)
- Always KEEP YOUR PETS ON A LEASH or leave them at home. (Dogs are friends, not food. If anyone can translate that into bear language, let us know. In the meantime, 6-foot leash at all times!)
- PACK OUT OR DISPOSE OF ALL FOOD AND TRASH. (It’s rude to leave things at the bear’s house, and they’re clearly already grumpy.)
- But seriously folks, stay safe out there! DO NOT APPROACH A BEAR AND/OR TRY TO GIVE IT FOOD! If you encounter a bear, back away slowly and quietly in the opposite direction.”
- Source: NC State Parks
In short, the best way to avoid negative encounters with bears is to maintain your distance, and keep food safely stowed away. For more information about road and park closures, visit the NPS Blue Ridge website, and visit BearWise.org.