When it comes to Townsend, TN and the town’s relationship with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, some of its best work can be seen through the efforts of a small group that started the Appalachian Bear Rescue in 1996.
Over the years the black bear has come to symbolize all the wildlife that makes up the National Park and through the Appalachian Bear Rescue (ABR), volunteers have worked tirelessly to keep it that way. In all, ABR is a one-of-a-kind, black bear rehabilitation facility located in Townsend. Appalachian Bear Rescue is also a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization that strives to return all orphaned and injured black bears to the wild, as well as those bears that are in need of urgent medical care.
According to a recent WVLT report out of Knoxville, some orphaned bear cubs are searching for food this time of year instead of trying to find a den for winter. This is where Appalachian Bear Rescue steps in to help.
“They’ve been in a desperate search for food all year,” Lisa Stewart, Appalachian Bear Rescue Curator, told WVLT. “Right now we are encountering a terrible food crisis for our bears and we’re seeing many orphan cubs needing to come to facility.”
Through the end of November, the Appalachian Bear Rescue had taken in a record number of bear cubs – 31 – topping the previous high of 23 in 2009. Some are even starving to death when they arrive.
“We are seeing bears come in that are supposed to be 70 pounds but seeing them at 15 pounds,” said Jack Burgin, president of Appalachian Bear Rescue.
With rehabilitation so expensive, donations from the public help the ABR nurse the black bears back to health and releases them into the wild – a practice that in reality has been ongoing in these parts since the late 80s.
A severe hard mast (nut and seed) shortage in 1989 had driven black bears into lower elevations of the Smoky Mountains to look for food. The starving bears combined with humans reluctant to go near the bears left an unusually large number of orphaned cubs. When a concerned group of volunteers noticed this trend, they decided to form the Appalachian Black Bear & Release Center Inc. in the summer of 1990 to help the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park care for the orphaned cubs.
It started out as the Appalachian Bear Center, and efforts centered around raising money, acquiring land and building a fenced area to care for the bears. The center’s first bear, “Zero”, arrived on July 8, 1996, and was released on September 20, 1996. The ABC’s first full-time curator, Daryl Ratajczak, started on June 9, 1997, and promptly began caring for three yearling bears.
By 1999, word of ABC’s success led other states to ask for its help. Since then, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina have all asked ABC/ABR to help care for their severely malnourished cubs. Lisa Stewart, who now serves as curator, was hired in April 2003, and began work a few days early to help care for a bear named “Lucky.” Since then, ABC/ABR has continuously cared for at least one bear or cub, although there are usually many more. To date, the Applalachian Bear Rescue has assisted more than 95 bears by returning them to the wild.
For more information on the Appalachian Bear Rescue, or to make a donation, visit the ABR’s website.