Study tracks bear movement during Smokies wildfires

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Black bears are iconic symbols of the Smoky Mountains.

After the Gatlinburg wildfires consumed the mountainsides in late November, many people reached out to WATE 6 On Your Side with concerns about the black bear population. Remarkably, only two bears are known to have died because of the fires and a study already in place by the lead curator at Appalachian Bear Rescue may hold clues about how others survived.

“We decided to look at how bears responded to those wildfires. Since we already had black bears collared in the area, we just decided to look at the GPS data and see if there was any kind of response that we could come up with,” said Appalachian Bear Rescue’s lead curator, Coy Blair.

Blair is a graduate student at the University of Tennessee. He has been using GPS collars on the bears that Appalachian Bear Rescue released into the wild as part of his thesis. After the fires, he teamed up with another graduate student doing a similar study and their advisors to see if they could track the bears’ movements.

Appalachian Bear Rescue puts GPS Collar on bear released into the wild. (Courtesy Appalachian Bear Rescue)

“No work has been done that I know of looking at wildfire and bears’ immediate responses,” said Dr. Joe Clark, Blair’s advisor.

The collar study works by plotting the bears’ GPS locations as dots on Google Earth, so they can get an up close, accurate look at where the bears are. Blair said after looking at the data he was able to determine there was nothing significant in the movements of any of the eight bears that were tracked. To the surprise of the researchers, Blair said all of the bears were in the fire zone and all of the bears survived with no apparent rush to get away from the fire.

“If you don’t find anything, that says something,” said Blair. “We didn’t find any significant differences so maybe that shows kind of how adaptable black bears really are.”

Blair said his team is now looking into how the bears survived in the midst of more than 17,000 burned acres. He said he knows other animals that are less mobile than bears can bury themselves or go underwater, finding ways to avoid danger.

Gatlinburg burn area (Left), Coy Blair looks at GPS track of bears (Right)

“It would be really hard to tell how they did it, because we couldn’t be there,” Blair said.Since the fires, he is still tracking movements and conducting what he calls ”

Since the fires, Blair’s team is still tracking movements and conducting what he calls “den checks” to see how the bears are faring. He said some of the bears did have some minor burns.

Photos from “den checks”

Clark noted, “They can endure a lot and still survive.”

Blair said there are several other studies in place looking at how other species reacted to the fires.

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