Starving black bears from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been creeping into nearby residential neighborhoods and tourist areas - climbing up condominium balconies, crawling onto to a school campus and breaking into vehicles.
Wildlife authorities said the animals aren't finding enough food in their own habitat, so they're wandering into ours.
"Unfortunately, food is very scarce this year," park spokeswoman Dana Soehn told the Citizen-Times.
Bear favorites such as wild cherries, acorns, hickory nuts and walnuts are in short supply this season - a periodic problem that's prompted by weather patterns, experts said.
Park spokesman Brent Everitt told The Washington Post that "unfortunately, it's something we can't really tell until we get right on top of that season," so bears are driven to hunt in more precarious spots - garbage cans, barbecue grills and bird feeders, to name a few, he said.
Hungry bears, Everitt said, have been wandering down from the national park into "gateway" communities -- including Gatlinburg, Tenn.; Townsend, Tenn.; Bryson City, N.C.; and Cherokee, N.C. -- to hunt along roadways where natural foods are available.
The National Park Service has issued an alert instructing visitors to stay away and has temporarily shut down certain roads to protect the public and allow the bears to feed in their natural habitat.
This is the time when the park's roughly 1,500 bears are filling up on food before bedding down for the winter; some of them are known to travel more than 100 miles from home to find a meal, according to "NOVA." Park authorities said that this season, they have seen as many as eight bears to a tree searching for something to eat - a signal that there's a problem.
"That is a sure sign that food is pretty scarce," park wildlife biologist Bill Stiver told the Wall Street Journal. "A lot of those bears are spilling out of the park, traveling very long distances in a very short period."
Indeed, black bears have been making their way into nearby neighborhoods - namely Gatlinburg.
In September, a resident there called authorities about a black bear that was climbing up the side of a condominium, NBC affiliate WBIR reported at the time. She told the news station she thought it might have smelled garbage on a balcony in the building.
She said it came back that evening for a second look.
That same month, several big bear cubs - and their mother - were spotted in the area ransacking an SUV.
"Even the ceiling was gone, as the bear was trying to crawl out the sunroof," Brooke Ward, whose father owned the vehicle, told NBC affiliate KOAA. "It still runs great; my dad drove it home."
Gatlinburg is nestled in Sevier County, an area with about 95,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There have been several recent incidents in the area - including one in which a bear tried to climb into a van where a small child was sitting. The events prompted Tennessee wildlife authorities to shoot and kill a mother bear and three cubs last week, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Dan Gibbs, a biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, told the Wall Street Journal that many residents have learned not to feed the bears, but "it only takes one or two to set the whole problem into motion." For instance, he told the newspaper, a bear might become a threat to someone - and then authorities are forced to put it down.
The problem, Everitt said, is that once a bear becomes habituated into breaking into human property and eating human food, it will continue that activity.
"At that point, the only way to move beyond that is to euthanize the bear," he told The Post.
Not only is it dangerous for humans, Everitt said, but it's also bad for the bears, which teach their cubs that the only way to get food is from humans, meaning the cubs cannot survive in the wild.
"It's important that these bears remain wild," he said. "When they don't, the health of the population begins to decline and then the population begins to shrink."
Some nearby property managers are suggesting that residents keep food indoors and seal garbage in bear-resistant cans to deter the hungry hunters.
"I think people are not expecting to have bears in their area so they're not used to taking these precautions, that's what we're seeing outside the park," Soehn, the park spokeswoman, told the Citizen-Times.
Being too close to one of the animals, the National Park Service warns, "may promote aggressive behavior from the bear such as running toward you, making loud noises, or swatting the ground. The bear is demanding more space. Don't run, but slowly back away, watching the bear. Increase the distance between you and the bear. The bear will probably do the same."
If a bear starts to attack, park authorities suggest:
Change your direction.
If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground.
If the bear gets closer, talk loudly or shout at it.
Act aggressively to intimidate the bear.
Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground).
Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear.
Use a deterrent such as a stout stick.
Don't run and don't turn away from the bear.
Don't leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.
© 2015 The Washington Post