Blue Ridge Country May/June 2021 - 26

BIG MAMMALS
IN THE SMOKIES

BEAR
MAN
Bill Stiver credits " blind luck " for longtime career looking after large wildlife.

By NANCY HENDERSON | Photos coutesy of BILL STIVER

B

ack in the 1980s, on the first
day of class at Michigan State
University, Bill Stiver's fisheries and wildlife professor asked
the students to write an essay
about the profession. Then he
made a pronouncement: " I
guarantee that in the future none of you
will be doing what you said you would. "
Undeterred, Stiver focused his paper
on big-game animals, now referred to as
large mammals. Years later, he remembered the teacher's prediction. " I was like,
'Well by golly, I am. I'm working with
bears. I'm working with elk. I'm working
with wild hogs.' "
For the past decade, Stiver, 56, has
overseen these animals and others as supervisory wildlife biologist at the Great
Smoky Mountains National Park, headquartered in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Now

26

BLUERIDGECOUNTRY.COM

the go-to guy for managing black bears in
the Smokies, he has brought in $2.2 million in funding for research related to wild
hogs, bats, elk and, of course, bears.
Midway through college, he still hadn't
decided what he wanted to do for a living, but he knew it involved animals. During orientation for Michigan State's animal science program, Stiver sat flipping
through the catalog, reading about other
tracks. To his dismay, he realized that his
own path focused on livestock.
" And I thought to myself, 'I don't want
to work with cows, horses and pigs.' " Fisheries and Wildlife seemed like a better fit,
so right then and there, he walked up to
the registrar and changed his major.
Soon after graduation in 1987, he
landed a temporary job electrofishing at
Shenandoah National Park. But his roommate's black bear study at Virginia Tech

was far more appealing, so every weekend,
Stiver helped his friend tag bears with radio collars.
Stiver distinctly recalls the first time
he witnessed a bear in the wild, soon after moving to Virginia. Driving with a
Shenandoah coworker, the two spotted a
female with a trio of babies by the side of
the road.
" The three cubs had shimmied up a
tree just briefly, " he says. " They saw us
and spooked and took off running. Bears
are such an iconic species. You typically
remember the first bear you ever saw out
of hundreds, maybe even thousands. "
Despite his interest in bears, he planned
to pursue an undergraduate degree somewhere in the North, where he'd most
likely focus on moose and white-tailed
deer. But one day he stumbled across a reference to a likeminded researcher at the


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Blue Ridge Country May/June 2021

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