GSMNP (press release)—Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials received DNA results from the bear attack occurring at backcountry campsite 84 where a 16-year old male from Ohio was seriously injured by a bear on June 6. Immediately following the report of the attack, rangers and wildlife biologists implemented an action plan that included clearing the Hazel Creek backcountry area of hikers and searching for bears using cameras, traps, and conducting foot patrols. Wildlife biologists and rangers also conducted a thorough investigation of the scene of the attack and collected forensic evidence, including bear hair and saliva from the victim’s equipment, to be used for DNA analysis.
On the evening of June 7, wildlife biologists encountered and shot at a bear near campsite 84, but the bear ran off after the shots were fired and biologists were unable to confirm whether the bear had been struck. Efforts to track the bear were unsuccessful due to darkness and a severe thunderstorm with heavy rainfall that fell immediately following the shooting. On the morning of June 8, a bear was caught in a culvert trap set at campsite 84. Biologists euthanized the bear and collected a sample for DNA analysis.
Wildlife biologists continued to search daily for bears in the area. During the search, they located a rifle bullet from the site of the bear shooting on June 7. Examination of the bullet confirmed that a bear had been hit and a DNA sample was collected from bear hair on the bullet. The sample was also submitted for lab analysis.
Park officials have now received DNA analysis from the collected samples, marking the first time in the history of managing bear populations in the park where wildlife biologists have had access to a lab willing and capable of processing DNA samples in a timely enough manner to be of use in a bear attack case. Through DNA analysis of samples collected from the scene of the attack on June 6, the bear responsible for the attack has been determined to be a male.
The DNA analysis also confirms that the bear trapped at campsite 84 and the bear shot at campsite 84 are two different male bears. The DNA sample taken from the trapped bear does not match DNA from the attack bear. The DNA from the shot bear was insufficient to make a definitive positive or negative match with DNA collected from attack bear, but the DNA characteristics are quite similar. The genetics specialist conducting the analysis estimated at least a 65% DNA match between the shot bear and the bear responsible for the attack. While it is likely that the bear shot was the same involved in the attack, it cannot be confirmed without a better DNA sample.
“Due to the extreme seriousness of the bear attack and threat to human safety, we responded swiftly to secure the safety of hikers in the backcountry,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “Though extremely rare and regrettable, we recognize that an uninvolved bear was euthanized through this process and we will be examining new procedures that may allow us to quickly use DNA analysis to correctly identify bears responsible for predatory attacks in the future.”
Wildlife biologists believe that the bear that was shot is likely dead as no bear activity at campsite 84 has been observed since June 8 despite extensive search efforts. Out of an abundance of caution, park staff is continuing their search and investigation while the temporary closure remains in effect. Managers will assess later in the week whether it would be reasonably safe to end the closure at that time following a few more days of search efforts.
For more information on what to do if you encounter a bear while hiking, please visit the park website at http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/black-bears.htm. To report a bear incident, please call 865-436-1230.