When we think about problems with bears in national parks, areas such as Yellowstone and Yosemite often come to mind, but bruins can be an issue "back East" as well. A picnic area in North Carolina along the Blue Ridge Parkway has been closed temporary to help resolve a bear-people food issue.
As has been discussed at length on the Traveler, "bear problems" are typically the result of human activity, and those issues aren't confined to western states. Officials at the Blue Ridge Parkway have temporarily closed the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area at Milepost 367.6 on the parkway because of bear activity.
The closure began on Friday, August 21 and will continue "until at least September 4, 2009," which is the Friday of Labor Day weekend. According to information from the park,
The problems with bear at Craggies began in mid-July, when park maintenance staff found food pulled out of a dumpster. "Soon thereafter, we began seeing bear during the day. Bears were completely unafraid of people by early August," said Doc Cross, a maintenance employee who often works at Craggy Gardens. "Three or four bears were regularly raiding the dumpster," Cross said.
The dumpster at Craggies had a broken latch, and park rangers observed bears opening the dumpster and getting in to get food. The dumpster has been removed.
It is relatively unusual for the park to close a picnic area, but "This is an unusual year," said District Ranger Tim Francis. "If we can keep food away from bears by closing the picnic areas, then we have a chance to keep both people and bears healthy and alive," said Francis. Park officials hope that bears will move out of the picnic area by Labor Day weekend so it can be reopened. "We won't know for sure, though, until we get closer to the long weekend," said Francis.
"We're advising people to be really careful with the food in their campgrounds and while picnicking, making sure they store food in their vehicles," said Bambi Teague, Chief or Resource Management and Science. Though we have closed only the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area, we are having problems all along the 469 mile parkway.
"We want visitors to fully comprehend that when they feed bears, whether accidently or on purpose, they kill bears." Bears that become unafraid of humans will walk right up to people expecting food. The closer the bear get to people, the greater chance we have that someone will get hurt. When bears become unafraid of people, sometimes the only option we have is to kill them." Earlier in the month a bear made physical contact with a picnicker at Craggies and was later killed by euthanasia.
One reason for the increased bear sightings is because the area's black bears are coming unusually close to humans to forage for food. Their food supplies are low right now, and people are leaving food out. The bear population is also on the rise.
Let's hope the park's actions will resolve the problem. As is true elsewhere, the real key is "bear management" is educating people and encouraging them to behave responsibly in areas they share with bruins.
You'll find maps and other information to help you plan a visit to the Blue Ridge Parkway on the park's website. Locations on the Parkway are usually described in terms of "mileposts," with the numbering system beginning with "Mile 0" at Rockfish Gap, Virginia, where the northern end of the parkway adjoins the southern end of Shenandoah National Park. Mile numbers become larger as you head south, until the Blue Ridge Parkway ends 469 miles later in North Carolina, near Great Smoky Mountains National Park.