Black Bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Big Black Bear by Brian Shults
Big Black Bear by Brian Shults
Bear of the Smokies
The prospect of seeing a wild black bear in its native surroundings draws millions of visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year. For modern humans living in our highly mechanized and technological society, observing a black bear in the wilderness feels like a glimpse into the ancient past.
Bears inhabit all elevations of the park. Though populations are variable, recent counts indicate approximately 1,600 bears live in the park. This equals a population density of approximately two bears per square mile. At one time, the black bear’s range included most of North America except the extreme West Coast.
All black bears in the park are black in color, but in other parts of the country they may be brown or cinnamon. Black bears may be six feet in length and up to three feet high at the shoulder. Females are generally smaller and weigh less than males. Bears weigh eight ounces at birth and can weigh over 400 pounds as an adult. Bears can live 12-15 years or more, except “panhandler” bears which have a life expectancy of about half that time.
Bears eat mostly berries, nuts, insects, and animal carrion. They have color vision and a keen sense of smell. In addition, they are good tree climbers, can swim very well, and can run 30 miles per hour.
Most activity occurs during early morning and late evening hours during spring and summer. Mating usually takes place in July. Both female and male bears may have more than one mate during the summer.
Bears choose a denning site with the coming of cold weather. Dens are usually hollow stumps, tree cavities, or wherever there is shelter. Bears in the Smokies are unusual in that they often den high above the ground in standing hollow trees. Bears do not truly hibernate, but enter long periods of sleep. They may leave the den for short periods if disturbed or during brief warming trends.
One to four cubs are born during the mother’s winter sleep. Females with newly born cubs usually emerge from their winter dens in late March or early April. Commonly born in pairs, the cubs will remain with the mother for about 18 months or until she mates again.
What if I See a Bear?
Willfully approaching within 50 yards (150 feet) or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear is prohibited.
Bears in the park are wild and their behavior is sometimes unpredictable. Although extremely rare, attacks on humans have occurred, inflicting serious injuries and death. Treat bear encounters with extreme caution and follow these guidelines:
If you see a bear, remain watchful. Do not approach it. If your presence causes the bear to change its behavior (stops feeding, changes its travel direction, watches you, etc.)—you’re too close. Being too close may promote aggressive behavior from the bear such as running toward you, making loud noises, or swatting the ground. The bear is demanding more space. Don’t run, but slowly back away, watching the bear. Try to increase the distance between you and the bear. The bear will probably do the same.
If a bear persistently follows or approaches you, without vocalizing, or paw swatting, try changing your direction. If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground. If the bear gets closer, talk loudly or shout at it. Act aggressively and try to intimidate the bear. Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground). Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear. Use a deterrent such as a stout stick. Don’t run and don’t turn away from the bear. Don’t leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.
Most injuries from black bear attacks are minor and result from a bear attempting to get at people’s food. If the bear’s behavior indicates that it is after your food and you’re physically attacked, separate yourself from the food and slowly back away. If the bear shows no interest in your food and you’re physically attacked, fight back aggressively with any available object–the bear may consider you as prey! Help protect others, report all serious bear incidents to a park ranger immediately. Above all, keep your distance from bears!
Garbage Kills Bears!
The bear’s keen sense of smell leads it to nuts and berries, but the animal is also enticed by human food left on a picnic table or offered from an outstretched hand. Feeding bears or allowing them access to human food causes a number of problems:
• It changes the bear’s wild behavior and causes them to lose their instinctive fear of humans. This lack of fear causes food-conditioned or “nuisance” bears to be more unpredictable and dangerous when they encounter humans.
• At their best, food-conditioned bears perform tricks to obtain food. At their worst, they damage property and injure people. In 2005, 165 bear-related incidents were recorded and extensive property damage occurred.
• It transforms wild and healthy bears into “garbage bears.” Studies have shown that food-conditioned bears never live as long as wild bears. Many are hit by cars and become easy targets for poachers. Food-conditioned bears may die from ingesting food packaging.
For these reasons, National Park Rangers issue citations for feeding bears and for improper food storage. Feeding bears and improper food storage can result in fines of up to $5,000 and jail sentences lasting up to six months. Visitors are urged to view all wildlife at a safe distance and to never leave food or garbage unattended. Garbage Kills Bears!
Habitual food-conditioned bears must be treated with aversive conditioning techniques or destroyed. If the bears are managed soon after they start to lose their wild behavior, they have a better chance of returning to natural food foraging habits.
Until 1991, the park’s management policy centered on live trapping problem bears and relocating them away from developed areas. Frequently, they returned and had to be trapped repeatedly or removed from the park entirely. Now wildlife managers use proactive aversive conditioning that involves capturing, working-up, and releasing bears back into the same area. The work-up involves tranquilizing the animal and performing a safe medical examination on the bear. While the procedure is harmless to the bear, it is unpleasant and re-instills a fear of humans. This approach allows bears to remain in their home range, but they shy away from the developed areas.
In addition, bear-proof garbage cans have been replaced with larger bear-proof dumpsters. Volunteers and park staff diligently patrol the busiest picnic areas in the evenings to watch for potential problem bears and to clean up any trash that has been left out. Public education and law enforcement efforts have also been stepped up. So far the results are encouraging and the number of problem bears has been reduced.
Other Threats to Bears
Non-Native Species: The European wild hog is one of the most direct threats to the black bear. These pervasive intruders feed on the acorns and other mast that is a mainstay in the bear’s diet. Another exotic species, the gypsy moth, is headed southward. This insect defoliates oak trees, weakening them. Not only could the bear’s food source of acorns be affected, but some of the prime denning spots in old growth trees may be lost.
Poaching: Unfortunately, the lure of high profits on international markets encourages the poaching of black bears. Several cultures believe that bear gall bladders, paws, and claws have medicinal powers or consider them gourmet delicacies.
Urban Encroachment: Community and private developments near park boundaries are causing a loss of habitat for bears. Poaching activities can be somewhat curtailed, and bear populations can eventually rebound from the losses. But once the critical habitats are destroyed, major declines in bear populations are inevitable. In addition, bears that venture outside park boundaries into neighboring communities may encounter human food and become unpredictable and dangerous “nuisance” bears.