7 Things Not To Do When You Spot Wildlife In the Smoky Mountains

people standing around and taking closeup pictures of a bear in cades cove

It is prohibited by law to willfully be within 50 yards (or 150 feet) of wildlife in the Smoky Mountains (photo by Leslie Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

A few tips and tricks on what not to do when you see wildlife in the Smoky Mountains

Warmer weather has returned to the mountains and with it, wildlife in the Smokies is more active. As someone who has lived near the mountains for more than 30 years, I’ve seen my fair share of people who have surprisingly little awareness when it comes to both etiquette and common sense. But it’s important if you’re going to the Smokies, to be prepared for animal interactions and educate yourself on what not to do.  

With the return of warm weather, both tourists and the wild residents of the Smokies are becoming more active. In this article, we will discuss several key tips to make sure everyone can enjoy their trip and the people, and the animals stay safe. 

bobcat kitten
According to the NPS, although many wildlife appear tame, like this baby Bob Cat, they are not. Always resist the urge to pet and hold them (photo by Megan Lorenz/stock.adobe.com)

1. Don’t Forget to Educate Yourself

There’s no guarantee that you will encounter wildlife on your visit. But you need to be prepared for how to handle it when you do. This goes beyond the park’s suggestion for how to handle bears. There are many other animals from skunks to deer to elk and you should have a good understanding of what constitutes a safe distance and what to do if you accidentally find yourself inside that distance. The NPS offers guides on how to handle various wildlife encounters. It is also necessary to be on the lookout for extenuating circumstances like a rabies infection. 

Deer Graze in Cades Cove
Even seemingly peaceful deer can be dangerous when provoked (photo by Leslie Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

2. Don’t Underestimate Docile Animals

People usually understand that a bear could be a problem and will provide appropriate space. But even seemingly docile animals like deer or elk can be a problem if provoked. There are plenty of videos on the internet of people approaching a deer and it goes bad very quickly. Both deer and elk have a lot of power in their legs and those hooves sure look like they could hurt when raining down on your head.

And while it happens infrequently, those antlers aren’t just for decoration, either. They can hurt as well. Just because you’ve seen a deer in a petting zoo, doesn’t mean you should approach one in the wild.  

Visitors Try to Photograph a Bear Cades Cove
Listen to the Rangers, it is not safe for the bears or the visitors to get too close (photo by Leslie Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

3. Don’t Ignore the Rangers

When you’re visiting the park in a frequently crowded place – like Cades Cove or Roaring Fork loops – Park Rangers will be nearby. They are used to and ready for crowds that develop during a wildlife spotting. When the ranger comes to direct traffic, make sure you’re ready to listen. 

We were in the Cove recently and had just passed the turnoff for the Primitive Baptist Church.  We saw a distinct line of cars and taillights that indicated a significant animal sighting. Up ahead, at the tree line, was a collection of quite a few people standing near the tree line. We were told there were two cubs and a mother bear. The cubs were in a tree maybe 50 yards from the crowd. The mother bear? I couldn’t tell where she was. 

The ranger had caught up to us, parked, and walked ahead to direct traffic, ordering some people back into their cars. He got traffic flowing again. But when we got up to the crowd, I was shocked at how close people were to the mother bear. It wasn’t petting-zoo-close, but it was much closer than I was comfortable with them being. Under 20 yards, if I was guessing. Maybe under 15. Which is, for the record, prohibited by law.

We started to pull into a gravel spot on the other side of the road but were rightly told to move on – kind of sharply – by the ranger. We did as instructed and went up to the Methodist Church where we had a good view from a safe distance. The Ranger was right.

Traffic at Cades Cove
Exercise caution when traffic is thick at Cades Cove (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

4. Don’t Forget About Others

As we were driving past the crowd as instructed, a woman who was with the crowd on the bear’s side of the road came stumbling down a small embankment, moving closer to the bear that was ahead of us but also towards the car. I stopped as she steadied herself. She never looked at the road or my car. 

Once it was clear she wasn’t going to fall in front of the car, I slowly moved forward. But she then walked right in front of the car, never turning her head. I had to brake hard again to avoid bumping her, drawing a reaction from the crowd on the non-bear side of the road and my wife from the passenger’s seat. 

Finally, acknowledging my presence, she said something to the car about me watching out. As I drove on, I heard at least two people arguing with her about not paying attention.

A Mama Bear in a Tree in Cades Cove
This mama bear quickly climbed a tree, bears are quick and agile despite their size (photo by Leslie Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

5. Don’t Try To Out Run a Bear

I’m not a bear expert but from our vantage point at the rear of the Methodist Church, we watched the bear and the crowd with interest. People were on the embankment. They were out of their cars. They were close enough that I felt uncomfortable. I suspect the bear did, too. It suddenly and quite nimbly climbed up into the trees above the crowd. Maybe the bear was just in the mood to climb. But I suspect it took to the trees for its safety. 

I wish I’d timed how quickly that bear got up in those trees, but I promise you it was seconds. If it had decided to defend itself or its cubs from the crowd, it could have covered that ground quite quickly. 

Needless to say if for any reason you find yourself facing an aggressive bear, whatever you do, don’t try to outrun it. Or climb a tree, for that matter.

The NPS recommends to try “talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human.” It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell” and to make yourself as large as possible.

A Deer Grazes on a Mowed Mound in Cades Cove
Don’t get too close to animals, it disturbs them and ruins the experience for others (photo by Leslie Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

6. Don’t Get Close

If you’re 400 yards from a bear and you can move your car closer, by all means, do it. If some deer are a couple of hundred yards away and you can quietly and nonchalantly get closer, OK. But don’t march right up to a wild animal, chase it off, and ruin the experience for everyone else, or put yourself in harms way.

And always remember, willfully approaching wildlife within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces an animal, is prohibited and could result in a fine or even a misdemeanor.

I was recently at a pull-off close to the end of the Loop Road that overlooks a meadow with a mound on it. There was a grass walkway mowed out to the top of the mound and the grass was mowed shorter around the top of the mound. It looked like a tee box with one of the world’s greatest views. As we arrived a deer was grazing on what would be the tee box. And as we watched, another deer joined us. It was maybe 200 yards away. 

But then, two guys who appeared to be together despite driving in separate cars by themselves parked and got out. “Is that a fox?” the one asked the other, taking a big hit on his vape pen. I didn’t hear the answer but apparently, they decided to get a closer look. 

They strode confidently from the parking area to the mowed walkway. And proceeded right up to the tee box and the deer. The deer watched for a second and then walked off the tee box to the other side of the mound and out of sight. Our two nature lovers stopped about 50 yards into their walk and came back to the parking area. They got in their separate cars and drove off without so much as an apology to the others who had been watching the deer from a distance.  

View of Mountains and Meadows and Clouds Cades Cove
The Cove is a place of unmatched beauty, but be aware of wildlife, other visitors and emergency vehicles. Above all, stay safe (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

7. Don’t Get in the Way of Emergency Vehicles

While we were driving the backside of the loop, my daughter’s boyfriend said he thought he saw emergency vehicle lights in the distance. I’ve been going to the park since the 1980s and was even towed out of there because my friend’s VW had broken down. But I’d never seen someone running lights and a siren in the Cove before that day.

We were in a line of cars trying to see another set of mothers and cubs. But the relative peace was broken by the clear sound of an emergency siren. I was already in a parking spot out of the way. The Park Ranger came into view with lights and sirens blaring, scaring the bears but not the people parked in his way. In fairness, Loop Road isn’t big enough for a lot of passing. However, there was room for the people to get their cars out of the way. Instead, one driver just sat there, apparently dumbfounded, to the point we thought the ranger was pulling him over. When he finally managed to get his truck out of the way, the Ranger hurried ahead to address whatever emergency was unfolding. Hopefully, the delay didn’t have a negative effect. 

Even in the height of tourist season, the Smokies are a place of peace and beauty. And even after all these years, I still find it exhilarating to be in the presence of beautiful wildlife like bears, elk, deer and turkeys. So, I understand people’s excitement and the urge to jump out of your car to get closer. But, folks, it’s for the best if we all keep a level head. It’s best for the animals. Certainly, it’s best for us. It’s best, even, for the foxes. 

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