Bears in Great Smoky Mountains | What You Need to Know

black-bear-heysmokiesWith the tourist season in full swing and a record number of visitors to the Smoky Mountains predicted this summer, along with reports from National Park rangers of increased bear activity, the opportunities for an encounter with the Smoky’s most iconic symbol have increased as well. Approximately 1,600 black bears live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and this year sightings and encounters seem to be on the rise.

There are a few things that visitors and locals alike need to know regarding black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains.

For many, spotting a bear is the most exciting part of their vacation in the Smokies. And rightly so, the majestic creatures are truly a sight to behold and their furry cuteness creates some sort of romantic notion about their gentleness. However, bears in the Great Smoky Mountains Park are wild creatures and can be dangerously unpredictable. At speeds of 30 mph, black bears can outrun, outclimb, and outswim humans.

One of the most important things to remember if you are lucky enough spot a bear is to keep a safe distance of at least 150 feet (50 yards) and do not approach. If you see a bear and he changes his behavior or looks your way, then you are way too close. To get that great picture, use a telephoto lens. If you want to view the bear up close, use binoculars or a spotting scope.

If you’re in the bear’s personal space, it may begin to make noises, paw at the ground or charge toward you. If this happens, slowly back away from bear while keeping your eyes on it. Do not turn and run no matter your instincts to do just that! If the bear continues toward you, act aggressively by making lots of noise, make yourself look big and shout at the bear, throw rocks at the bear and use a sturdy stick as a deterrent. Do not throw food at the bear; this only causes further problems. However, if it appears that the bear is after you for your food, separate yourself from the food and back away slowly. If in the rare instance of an attack, fight aggressively with any objects you can find. Do not play dead or the bear may consider you prey!

Park officials expect the increased bear activity to slow down a bit as the summer berries come on providing an ample food source. However, park visitors should continue to be hyper-vigilant in their litter and garbage containment. The single, most important thing that visitors and locals alike can do to protect the bears and themselves is to dispose of garbage properly. That means placing your garbage in bear-proof containers, or better yet, just pack out all your garbage with you. Here’s a friendly reminder: apple cores, watermelon rinds, orange and banana peels are garbage; just because they are natural doesn’t mean they belong on the side of the road. During the busy summer months, park picnic areas close at 8:00 p.m. so that park staff and volunteers can thoroughly clean these areas of food scraps and other trash left by careless visitors. The saying is true, a fed bear is a dead bear.

Wildlife viewing is a highlight of any visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Enjoy it safely!

For more information on hiking safety and wildlife in the park, check out this video produced by the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

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