Oct. 23, 2015: Park Encourages Visitors to View Bears Responsibly
Great Smoky Mountains National Park wildlife biologists remind the public to allow bears to forage undisturbed on natural foods during this critical feeding period before winter hibernation. Bears depend on fall foods such as acorns and grapes to store fat reserves that enable them to survive winter. These foods in the park this year are extremely rare, leading bears to move long distances in search of food.
“There were no cherries this year, and the hard mast is marginal at best,” said Smokies Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver. “Because food is scare, bears are trying to access individual trees in areas they normally would not during good food years.”
Many bears have been reported well outside the park boundary, including several sightings in busy, downtown communities and neighborhoods. Recently, a mother bear with a GPS-monitoring collar and three cubs traveled some 20 miles from the Elkmont area of the park to downtown Sevierville, TN. Local residents are reminded to keep residential garbage secured and to remove any other attractants such as bird feeders and pet foods.
In addition to greater movement in search of food, bears are also foraging on less-desirable mast such as hickories and walnuts. Park staff has reported as many as eight different bears visiting a single hickory tree to feed on nuts. Park officials are temporarily closing areas around these scarce food sources to allow bears access to forage. Visitors are reminded to respect these closed areas to give bears an opportunity to eat undisturbed and build up fat reserves for the winter. Photographers are reminded to use telephoto lenses to capture photographs and to remain at least 50 yards from bears at all times.
Feeding bears is illegal and all food waste should be properly disposed of to discourage bears from approaching people. Feeding, touching, disturbing, and willfully approaching wildlife within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces wildlife, is illegal in the park. If approached by a bear, visitors should slowly back away to put distance between the animal and themselves creating space for the animal to pass.
For more information on what to do if you encounter a bear while hiking, please visit the park website. To report a bear incident, please call 865-436-1230.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains some of the largest tracts of wilderness in the East and is a sanctuary for a wide variety of animals. Protected in the park are some 66 species of mammals, over 200 species of birds, and more than 75 types of reptiles and amphibians.
Viewing wildlife in the Smokies can be challenging because most of the park is covered by dense forest. Open areas like Cataloochee and Cades Cove offer some of the best opportunities to see white-tailed deer, black bear, raccoon, Wild Turkey, woodchuck, and other animals. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail encourages motorists to travel at a leisurely pace and sometimes yields sightings of bear and other wildlife. During winter, wildlife is more visible because deciduous trees have lost their leaves.
Because many animals are most active at night, it can be advantageous to look for wildlife during morning and evening. It’s also a good idea to carry binoculars. Some people like to sit quietly beside a trail to see what wildlife will come out of hiding. And don’t forget to scan the trees—many animals spend their days among the branches.
As human activities dominate ever-larger portions of the American landscape, our national parks have become increasingly valuable as sanctuaries for rare and endangered wildlife. Endangered park animals include the northern flying squirrel, Peregrine Falcon, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Indiana bat, spruce-fir moss spider, and the Smoky madtom.
The National Park Service has been involved in a number of efforts to save these species from extinction. Park resource management crews have conducted prescribed fires in old-growth pine-oak forest to create suitable nesting sites for Red-cockaded woodpeckers. Crews have also erected solid steel barricades at cave entrances to protect endangered bats from spelunkers during critical times of the year. The aforementioned reintroductions have also increased the survival chances for Smoky madtoms and Peregrine Falcons.