A DNA test exonerated a 400-pound bear that was the primary suspect in a night-time attack on a hiker at Great Smoky Mountains National Park — but only after the bear was killed by park officials.
On May 10, a 49-year-old hiker said he was attacked by a bear that came through his tent near a shelter. The victim had properly stored his food on aerial food storage cables. But officials say the bear was especially aggressive, making several attempts to get into the hiker’s tent.
Park officials launched a search for the aggressive bear. Some of the park’s bears are outfitted with GPS tracking collars, but not all, so it takes a little detective work to determine if park staff have the right bear. To get more proof, park officials in the last year have started conducting DNA tests on bears suspected in attacks before deciding to euthanize them.
“Bears are iconic symbols in the Smokies and a decision to euthanize an animal is not made lightly,” Superintendent Cassius Cash said in a statement. “Park staff have worked diligently over the last year to develop viable alternatives to euthanasia. Understandably, these options won’t be appropriate responses for every bear incident.”
Three days after the attack, park officials captured a 400-pound bear near the hiker’s campsite. The bear’s neck was too large for it to have been fitted with a tracking collar, so officials couldn’t track its movements. But the statement says they had reason to be suspicious.
“The large, dominant male bear fit the profile of a bear expected to have been responsible for the attack,” the National Park Service said in a news release. “Not only was the bear near the scene of the attack when it was captured, but it also had dental injuries consistent with the hiker’s bite wound.”
Carrying a tranquilized bear six miles through backcountry to the park ranger’s equivalent of county lockup wasn’t considered a practical option, so park officials faced a conundrum: set a suspect bear free to possibly attack another hiker, or kill an innocent bear.
Erring on the side of safety, park officials killed the bear. Then they took a DNA sample and sent it off to the lab.
The lab, which hasn’t been named, tested bear saliva from the teeth marks in the hiker’s chewed belongings. Technicians compared the DNA in that saliva with the dead bear’s saliva and said it didn’t match. Another suspected bear — this one was 200 pounds and captured on May 20 — was also ruled out by DNA evidence.
The release encourages hikers to walk in groups of two or more, carry bear spray and properly store food, especially during May and June, when a lack of natural food makes bear attacks more common.
The bear that attacked the hiker remains at large. John Simmons contributed.