Bear Deported From National Park Walks 1,000 Miles Back Home, Including Shopping Mall Visit. "She Never Slowed Down. She Just Kept on Going."
She took the long way home.
A mischievous black bear was deemed so disruptive to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—stealing backpacks from hikers and nabbing food from picnic tables—that she was rehomed at a nature reserve in eastern Tennessee. But the bear decided she liked her previous home and its amenities just fine, and she made that known by trekking 1,000 miles through four states over six months, back to the national park.
She was tracked near the picnic tables where she has been causing trouble in the first place. Read on to find out more about the bear's fantastic journey, how officials responded, and what's next for the latest celebrity caniform.
Park officials knew her as Bear 609. When she started getting a bit too up-close-and-personal with park visitors, officials relocated her to the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, fitting her with a GPS collar so they could continue a 40-year study on the behavior of relocated bears.
Some have been killed by hunters or struck by cars. Researchers don't know what happened to nearly three-quarters of them. But none behaved quite like 609. "This was definitely one of the most bizarre movements I've seen so far," said Bill Stiver, a wildlife biologist at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "She never slowed down. She just kept on going."
After Bear 609 was moved to the Cherokee National Forest, she started walking, crossing a busy interstate and back to her original campsite. In late July, she had wandered into Alpharetta, Georgia, and made TV news after being seen rummaging through trash at the Avalon shopping center.
Bystander Joakima Douglas filmed the bear trying to open several doors, without success. "You would have thought it was a dog waiting for its owner," she said. "Now I don't know what I'm going to see at the mall," she said.
Bear 609 was hit by a car at the shopping center, but seemed to be uninjured. She continued on, moving into South Carolina, where she was spotted by relatives of one of the researchers. "This particular bear had a personal connection with some of my family members," said Lisa Mcinnis, chief of resource management and science.
"They live in Anderson, South Carolina, and my brother showed me a picture of the bear. I asked Bill, 'Do we have a bear in this general area?' And he said, 'We sure do.' It's a very, very small world."
Researchers say they learned a lot from 609's movements. She ultimately traveled more than 1,000 miles—five times farther than the previous record-holder, who was tracked for about 200 miles in 2020. That means 609 took the scenic route home. The Cherokee National Forest is only 150 miles away from her original habitat in the Great Smoky Mountains. Officials say they haven't gotten GPS data from her in about two weeks, but they believe 609 is still alive.
Most relocated bears don't fare as well as 609, researchers have found. "The outcome really isn't that good. You know, some of the preliminary data is suggesting the majority of those bears are dying in some form or fashion within four months. Whether it's vehicle collisions, additional conflict, hunter-killed, and things of that nature," Stiver said.
To prevent that, experts urge nature lovers to be careful about how they interact with bears. Rule one: Don't feed them or leave food lying around your campsite. That teaches bears that humans are a source of food, which can lead to dangerous interactions and the need for relocations.