Great Smoky Mountains National Park Announces Phased Opening

Wildlife braces for the return of humans to GSMNP.
Wildlife braces for the return of humans to GSMNP. Photo credit – myvetcandy

Great Smoky Mountains National Park announces phased opening. Beginning May 9, 2020 many roads and trails the Smokies will reopen. This follows the April reopening of most Tennessee State Parks. Health and safety of employees, partners, volunteers, visitors, and local residents remains the highest priority when making park reopening decisions. Park managers work to ensure park operations comply with current public health guidance, and will be regularly monitored. Park managers will also continue to work closely with the NPS Office of Public Health using CDC guidance to ensure public and workspaces are safe and clean for all users.

We recognize this closure has been extremely difficult for our local residents, as well as park visitors from across the country, who seek the park as a special place for healing, exercise, recreation, and inspiration,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “We are approaching this phased reopening with that in mind, as we balance our responsibility to protect park resources and the health and safety of everyone.

Hartely is one of the many bears rescued by Appalachian Bear Rescue.
Hartely is one of the many bears rescued by ABR.

Black Bears and elk, wandering where tourist used to tread, and can possibly lead to a beary scary situation. Black Bears are reclaiming territories due to the recent Coronavirus shutdowns which banned humans from state and National parks.  Visitors to these areas are encouraged to use common sense, and more than a little social distancing, when encountering bears. According to biologists, there are some 2,000 black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone. Male black bears can weigh in at about 250 pounds. A record weight for black bears is up to 600 pounds. Although the bears are omnivores, about 85 percent of their diet consists of berries, plants and nuts; black bears also eat insects and animal carrion. They are generally wary of people, but can be dangerous if provoked, and it is illegal to approach black bears within 150 feet.

Watch out for the spotted skunk when you visit the Smokies! Photo credit - KWCH
Watch out for the spotted skunk when you visit the Smokies! Photo credit – KWCH

The single most important thing to do is leave it alone, say representatives from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Colleen Olfenbuttel, the commission’s black bear and furbearing biologist, emphasized the danger of approaching a bear which may prompt a defensive action. She added that spring is typically when young bears, pushed away by the adult female as she prepares to breed again, are spotted in urban settings. “While these young bears, typically males, may appear to be wandering aimlessly around, they are not necessarily lost,” Olfenbuttel said. She added that most are just exploring new surroundings and will move on quickly. She also said it is important to not feed bears because this can cause dangerous encounters between bears, humans and their pets. 

If you live in or are visiting any areas where Black Bears live use these “Bear Wise Basics” to prevent any encounter that might prove dangerous to both humans and bears

Clean and store grills. Make sure all grease, fat and food particles are removed after each use. Store grills in a bear-resistant location, such as garages or sheds.

Secure food, garbage and recycling. Food odors attract bears. Store bags of trash inside cans in sheds or other enclosed sareas, and place trash outside, as late as possible, on the morning of trash pickups.

Consider using bear resistant trash containers

Remove bird feeders when bears are active Birdseed, grains and nectar from hummingbird feeders have high calorie content and are VERY attractive to bears.

Do not leave pet food outdoors. Remove any uneaten pet food and bowls after each feeding.

Elk are large animals, much larger than black bears and can be very dangerous. Females can weight up to 500 pounds and males can top the scale at 700 pounds. Both are as tall as a pickup truck. Adults measure from 7-10 feet long (nose to tail) and are 4.5 – 5 feet tall. Adult male’s antlers can span a width of five feet. 

The sound of bugling by male elk echoes across the territory during the fall breeding season, known as the “rut.” Using their antlers, large bulls attempt to intimidate and spar with other males. Mostly ritualistic, this show of force rarely involves actual physical contact. During this time dominate males may collect a harem of up to 20 cows. It is also a time when males may perceive a threat and charge anyone that ventures to close.

Females (cows) usually give birth to only one calf per year. The newborn can stand within minutes of birth and may nurse for 1-7 months. Most calves are born in early June and female elk with calves have been known to charge people in defense of their young. 

Male antlers, shed in early spring, are rich in calcium and are consumed by rodents and other animals. NOTE: it is illegal to remove antlers from the national park. The average lifespan for elk is 15 years. 

Elk have a great sense of smell and eyesight. Although coyotes, bobcats, and back bears may kill young or ailing elks, generally adult elk are safe from park predators. 

Best places to view. Most elk are located in the Cataloochee area in the southeastern section of the park. To reach Cataloochee is from Interstate Highway I-40 and exit at North Carolina #20. After 0.2 mile, turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow signs 11 miles into Cataloochee Valley. It is at least a 45 minute drive from the interstate. 

Park rules concerning Elk: Spotlights, elk bugles and other wildlife calls are illegal in the national park. The removal of elk antlers or elk parts from the park is illegal. 

Feeding park wildlife increases interaction with humans and is forbidden. This interaction endangers future park visitors and almost always leads to the animal’s demise.

For Current Park closures and other safety information are posted on

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