On a cold December morning, wildlife biologist Kim Delozier hiked through the snow to a backcountry campsite in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that had been closed since summer because of nuisance bear activity.
At the campsite, Delozier checked an infrared camera whose memory card revealed images of the problem bear still making nocturnal visits.
Reaching into his backpack, Delozier pulled out a tent. He explained that the bear had come to associate people with food, and that the tent would test the bear’s behavior by making it look as if the campsite was occupied.
Turns out, previous tents had been set up at the campsite, but the bear had torn them down.
“Days like this remind me how much I love this job,” Delozier said. “As a boy, I always thought that working for the park service would be an enjoyable thing to do, and I was right.”
At the end of December, after 32 years of trapping wild hogs, darting nuisance bears and chasing wandering elk, Kim Delozier retired as chief wildlife biologist for the Smokies.
He grew up in Seymour on a farm that had been in his family for more than 100 years. He entered the University of Tennessee expecting to major in farm management, until one cold winter night when he helped deliver a calf whose mother suffered from a prolapsed uterus.
Both the calf and mother survived, but there was a copious amount of blood. When Delozier arrived on campus the next day, he switched his major to wildlife management.
The year was 1976. UT wildlife professor Michael Pelton had launched his groundbreaking research of black bears in the Smokies, and the National Park Service was starting to take a more in-depth approach to managing the fish and wildlife protected inside the park’s half-million acres.
In 1978, while still in school, Delozier landed a part-time job in the Smokies hunting non-native wild hogs.
The following year, Delozier started working as a seasonal backcountry ranger, and in 1980, right after graduating from UT, he landed a permanent job with the park as a “wildlife handler,” which entailed everything from electro-shocking fish to loading tankers during wildfire season.
“I was like a kid in the candy store,” Delozier said. “It was the kind of job you dream about as a little boy.”
During the early 1980s, Delozier helped capture 275 deer out of Cades Cove that were turned over to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to help boost deer populations throughout the state. It was at this time that Delozier remembers seeing a spate of deer carcasses that exhibited all the signs of having been killed and cached by a cougar - something he has not seen since.
When Delozier started out, the Smokies employed just four people in resource management. Today, that staff includes 70 to 80 people including seasonal workers. Delozier’s job as a wildlife biologist kicked into high gear when the Smokies embarked on a series of wildlife reintroductions in keeping with the park’s overall mission to restore native ecosystems.
Starting with peregrine falcons in 1984 and moving through elk restoration in 2001, all of the park’s wildlife reintroductions over the past two decades began as experiments to determine if the species could co-exist with the park’s natural and human landscape.
The peregrine falcon releases were successful (in 1997 the park documented its first peregrine nest in the Smokies since 1943), as were efforts starting in the late 1980s to restore river otters.
“If I had to choose an animal to come back as after I die, it would be a river otter,” Delozier said. “They seem to play all the time.”
In the early 1990s, the Smokies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried unsuccessfully to reintroduce red wolves in the park. None of the wolf pups born in the park survived, and after 10 years, the project came to a halt.
“We couldn’t release enough wolves to out-compete the coyotes in the park,” Delozier said. “You just can’t take a captive animal, open the cage and expect it to make it in the wild.”
In 2001, the park launched an ambitious program to bring elk - a species that hadn’t roamed the mountains since the late 1700s - back to Cataloochee Valley in North Carolina. Delozier said what he remembers most about this successful campaign was the tremendous support from partners like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Friends of the Smokies and the public at large.
“Unlike the wolf reintroduction, bringing elk back to the park was something people genuinely wanted to see happen,” he said.
Delozier’s favorite memory from his three decades on the job? That would be a late afternoon in Cataloochee Valley when he was greeted with the sight of 15 or 20 elk grazing just hours after their release.
And his worst memory? Delozier said that by far it would be May 21, 2000, the day Glenda Ann Bradley, a 50-year-old elementary school teacher from Cosby, was mauled to death by a 112-pound black bear while hiking in the Elkmont section of the park.
In his office, Delozier keeps Bradley’s funeral announcement on the wall. Delozier said even though the bear had no prior record of aggressive behavior, he still felt guilty.
“I feel responsible for all the bears in the park, no matter what they do, whether they’re good or bad,” he said. “Part of the reason I’m ready to retire is this feeling of responsibility for every pig, elk and bear in the Smokies. You just know when it’s time.”