If we’re going to talk about the “rash” of bear attacks and bear encounters in and around the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, then we may as well start with this:
The remains of a friend of mine from high school were found down a ravine in Blount County earlier in the year. He’d been partially consumed by animals, presumably bears.
He wasn’t the closest of friends, and we’d lost touch over the years. But it is jarring to read about someone you camped with, played basketball with and hung out with for years coming to such an end.
He’d been struggling, I understand, and at the time of his death was wanted by police for car theft.
I don’t want to speculate about the “hows and whys” of his death, but we should note the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) said that the bears had likely not killed him.
They’d simply found him later.
Bears have been a fact of life in TN for a long time
I started to type “always been a factor,” but I remembered an old quote from one of the Walker sisters that indicated the mountain people had almost run the bears out prior to the national park.
Without hunting allowed anymore, the famed mountain woman opined in the 40s or the 50s that the bears – and the foxes and other critters – were getting far more annoying.
Still, when I moved to East Tennessee, bear sightings were relatively rare.
If you were very lucky, you’d see a bear or a momma and its cubs from a safe distance while driving the loop at Cades Cove.
We saw one once at the picnic area at the Cove, a big one. We immediately returned to the car and watched in safety as too many souls gambled to see how close they could get for pictures.
Editor’s note: Don’t see how close you can get for pictures.
Sometimes you’d hear about a bear startling a camper who’d been a little loose with food security in the mountains.
Once in a while, you’d hear of one coming down out of the mountains, confused and lost and accidentally finding itself among people.
And very, very rarely, you’d hear about a bear attack.
How many bear attacks are there per year in the Smoky Mountains?
Bear attacks are quite rare. In fact, bear attacks are not listed within the average number of injuries within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The National Park Service (NPS) lists the following average number of injuries within the park each year:
- Motor vehicle accidents: 50
- Walking or hiking accidents: 38
- Bicycle accidents: 16
- Falls from waterfalls: 9
- Horse related accidents: 7
- Tubing related accidents: 5
- Bee sting reactions: 4
Still, seeing bears in everyday life is becoming more common, which can be increasingly dangerous for both humans and bears.
Last month, a bear was spotted in our very residential neighborhood in the middle of an East Tennessee town. Word of that bear prompted others to share sightings up and down our – not particularly mountainous or wild – portion of the region.
I suppose my evidence for this is anecdotal and observational, but it does seem that bear encounters are generally on the rise.
When bears are common, it’s easy to forget that they remain quite dangerous.
Are bear attacks common in the Smoky Mountains?
Bear attacks in the Smoky Mountains are very rare. In fact, it’s so uncommon that it can be difficult to find many statistics on the subject.
In the year 2000, the Chicago Tribune reported a woman was killed by a black bear within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, about 10 miles from Gatlinburg.
At the time, she was the first person to be killed by a black bear in a federal park or reserve in the Southeast.
The hiker was experienced, and the attack was unprovoked. It’s was a nightmare scenario, and also an anomaly.
Smoky Mountain News recently reported that to this day, she is still the only person to die from a bear attack in the Smokies.
Bear attacks, incidents in the Smoky Mountains 2021
While bear attacks are uncommon, incidents do occur.
In June of 2021, a teenage girl was backcountry camping deep in the national forest when a bear attacked her as she slept in a hammock at night.
“This bear was exhibiting predatory behavior; it attacked in the middle of the night with no known provocation,” Dana Soehn, with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, told ABC news.
The girl suffered head injuries and lost a lot of blood. She had to be evacuated by helicopter.
ABC reported that after the attack, two bears were spotted in the area. Rangers killed the bear responsible for the attack.
In July of 2021, another bear was causing trouble at the Paint Creek Campground in the Cherokee National Forest near Greeneville at the Tennessee-Carolina state line.
The bear has been lingering among campers and has been deemed a safety threat. The bear hasn’t attacked anyone but has remained near the campground for weeks and may have to be euthanized.
“Based on the reported behavior of the bear, it is certainly conditioned to food in the campground and losing its fear of people,” the TWRA said in a release to the Charlotte Observer.
“An effort to trap the bear is the preferred course of action. This will reduce opportunity for its behavior to escalate which could result in injury to someone utilizing the campground.”
Also this year, the Citizen-Times reported that some campgrounds were closed due to bear activity in the Pisgah National Forest near the Appalachian Trail.
The article says that the highest number of conflicts between humans and bears occurs in May and June, when food is scarce.
Black bears sometimes have to be trapped, relocated or euthanized
Last year in 2020, WKRN reported that at least 40 bear-human related incidents occurred. These incidents result in a bear needing to be trapped, relocated or euthanized.
The article states that this almost always has to do with human food.
Once a bear feeds off of garbage or litter, they are used to getting food from these sources. They learn to come back for more.
If the food becomes scarce, this can lead to aggression.
In a case where a bear is found scavenging human remains, the bear is euthanized.
Bear encounters are not exclusive to the Smokies
Bear encounters aren’t limited to the Smoky Mountains, of course.
A woman in Alaska reported being chased by grizzlies, and a California teen went viral after bull-rushing a bear that was perched on a wall, swatting at her family’s dogs.
Editor’s note: Do not bull-rush a bear.
The NPS offers the following tips if you encounter a bear:
- Remain watchful.
- Do not approach it.
- Do not allow the bear to approach you.
If the bear is at a distance, feeding or walking by, and notices you but continues its natural behavior, no action is needed on your part.
If your presence causes the bear to change its behavior, you are 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.
If a bear persistently follows or approaches you:
- Change your direction.
- If the bear gets closer, talk loudly or shout at it and act aggressively.
- Throw non-food objects (such as rocks) at the bear.
- If you are carrying bear spray, begin to discharge it when the bear comes within 20 yards of you.
- Don’t run and don’t turn away from the bear.
- Don’t leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.
- Don’t discharge a firearm; this can cause a safety hazard for other visitors.
Black bears are wild and must be treated with respect. It is illegal in the national park to willfully approach a black bear within 50 yards or any distance that disturbs the bear.
For the safety of yourself and the wildlife, never feed or approach black bears. Always lock up your trash and do not litter.
Have you had a black bear experience in the Smokies? Share your stories with us in the comments.