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Innocent Bear Killed Because Park Rangers Messed Up

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A black bear was killed for injuring a teenager earlier this month. But it turns out he didn't actually do it.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park recently announced that officials had killed one innocent bear - and possibly two - in trying to capture the bear responsible for the attack.

Naturally, the incident raises serious questions about the appropriateness of the park's current wildlife management protocol. But it also fuels concerns about federal and state wildlife policies overall, which are responsible for millions of deaths each year - many of them, it can be argued, entirely needless.

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This incident began in June when a sleeping teenager was pulled from his hammock by a black bear, who then attacked him. The boy's father drove off the bear from the campground, and the teen was left with deep gashes on his head and face.

Bears rarely attack unless provoked, and this bear's unusual behavior made officials worry that he could prove a threat to other park visitors. And so they defaulted to the usual methods of wildlife management: to "very aggressively" try to kill the bear responsible, park spokeswoman Dana Soehn told The Dodo.

Based on the assumption that bears return to the scene of the attack, officials went back to the campground and shot at the first bear they saw. Startled, he ran off into the woods, and couldn't be tracked because of a storm.

The next day, they found a black bear in a trap they'd set. They decided that since he was at the campsite he was likely the bear behind the attack - and the same one they'd shot the night before - and promptly killed him.

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The park has never used DNA testing before, assuming that the first bear to return to the site of a given incident is usually the one responsible. For the first time, they decided to use it to confirm they killed the right bear.

Unfortunately, they hadn't. Tests showed that the bear they'd trapped and killed was not the bear responsible for the attack - just an innocent bear moseying around the campsite.

He also wasn't the bear they shot at. And a bullet found at the campground showed that the bear they shot was only a 65 percent match for the attack bear, which is too low to confirm he was responsible for the attack.

And so one bear has been killed, and another shot and is now wandering the woods or injured or dead. And still no one's certain whether the original bear is alive.

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Pat Craig, executive director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary, told The Dodo that these sort of mix-ups are all too common. More than anything, he explained, the priority for park officials is to ease the public's mind.

"They know the odds of them finding the right bear when they have lots of bears is a challenge," he said. "So a lot of times they go on the premise that the first bear they see, they just assume it's it."

After killing it, officials announce to the press that they think they got the right animal, Craig explained. If there are no further incidents, they blame the one they killed. If there are further incidents, they go out and kill another one.

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The DNA results from the Smoky Mountain case are bad news for hikers and campers, as it's still unclear whether there's a heightened risk of bear attacks in the area. But they're also very bad news for bears, as they highlight growing concerns over the effectiveness - and appropriateness - of state and federal wildlife policies.

Last year alone, the federal Wildlife Services killed an incredible 2.7 million animals, including 580 black bears. States killed thousands more: North Carolina and Tennessee, the two states that make up the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, allowed 2,501 and 342 bears to be killed by hunters, respectively.

The federal killings, as well as state hunting permits, are usually dealt out on the grounds of protecting humans and human interests - but they're often predicated on unfounded concern, or, as noted above, easing public fears. In Alaska, for example, a family of five black bears was sentenced to be killed in April after the mother huffed at a group of people who chased her cubs up a tree.

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The mother and her cubs were pardoned due to public outrage, but such a happy ending is a rarity as most of these killings are handled discreetly. But despite government insistence that hundreds of bears each year are such a threat that they have to be killed, only 63 people have been killed by black bears in the past hundred years or so.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park hopes to use DNA testing in the future to confirm a bear's identity before killing it, but that won't happen overnight. "There are definitely some steps that will have to evolve for us to do that," Soehn said.

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In the meantime, as long as the priority of wildlife departments is killing an animal - any animal - similar missteps will continue around the country.

"That makes the public happy," Craig said.