The man was treated at a local hospital and released, according to the News Sentinel, and the bear hunt began. Park officials collected samples of saliva and fur, Reuters reported, hoping DNA analysis might lead them to the culprit. The results would take weeks.
Just three days later, before DNA had proved anything, rangers tranquilized a 400-pound male black bear that fit their suspect’s profile. He was large and dominant, a spokeswoman told Reuters, and had “dental-canine injuries” that matched the hiker’s puncture wounds.
Wildlife officials have the ability to house bears while test results are pending, reported TV station WATE 6, but the tracking collar wouldn’t stay on the bear’s large neck, and he was too heavy to transport out of the backcountry. So they euthanized him.
On Monday, the park revealed that the DNA test results from the hiker didn’t match samples taken from the euthanized bear. Further testing showed that they also didn’t match a second bear officials had captured, outfitted with a GPS monitor and released.
“Bears are iconic symbols in the Smokies and a decision to euthanize an animal is not made lightly,” Superintendent Cassius Cash said in a news release, according to the News Sentinel. “In the interest of responsibly protecting hiker safety in America’s most visited national park, we make our decisions based on the best available information for each particular situation.”
Rangers mistakenly euthanized another innocent bear last summer after a 16-year-old Ohio boy was mauled inside the park while he slept in a hammock one night, the Citizen Times reported. Another bear was also shot near the campsite where the teen was attacked, and DNA taken from the bullet showed a partial match to samples taken from the boy.
“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,” park superintendent Cash said last year. “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.”
In both instances, park rangers said the campers followed protocol by stringing food up on aerial cables.
About 1,500 black bears live in the Smokies, according to the park website, which averages to about two bears per square mile. The animals are most active in the spring and summer, especially in the early morning and late evening.
Park spokesperson Dana Soehn told WATE 6 that the bears are often more aggressive in May and June.
“Injury is very rare,” she said, “but (this year) aggressive behavior in the back country has been reported from Abrams Creek over in the western end of the park all the way over to Tricorner Knob and Pecks Corner.”
Officials said the park averages one bear attack each year and, on average, euthanizes about three.