What to do if you see a black bear in the Smokies; 3 safety tips

The Smokies: What to do if you see a black bear
A black bear playing on a cabin porch (stock photo)

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There is a lot of wildlife to see in the Smoky Mountains – and it can be exciting to see animals in their natural habitat. But it’s important to remember that these beautiful creatures are wild animals, and you are a guest in their home.

Since black bears are among the most notorious animals in the Smokies, it’s smart to brush up on some safety tips before planning your trip.

1. Avoid a confrontation

While these bears may be “cute,” it’s important to remember that they are wild and potentially dangerous. They are fast runners, good swimmers, excellent climbers and have very keen senses.  

It is rare for a black bear to attack a human, but it does happen. A study by The Wildlife Society documents 59 fatal attacks between 1900 to 2009. To put that in perspective, that puts the risk of strangling yourself in your own bedsheets roughly 160 times more dangerous.  

However, because you are responsible for your own safety, it’s important to practice proper viewing etiquette. According to the National Park Service, you should:

  •  Keep your distance. If you do see a bear, do not get too close. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park prohibits approaching any wildlife within 50 yards or any distance that disturbs the wildlife. Getting too close to a bear may cause the bear to see you as a threat.
  •  Do not feed them (or offer access to food). Feeding the bears will encourage them, and it is dangerous for both humans and bears. It is also prohibited by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In some areas, bears that are no longer afraid of humans have a higher chance of being euthanized by park services. Feeding them is a lose-lose situation.
  •  Never go near a cub. Females are protective of their cubs, and the chance of an attack increases greatly if a bear thinks her cub is in danger. Cubs typically stay with their mothers for about two years from birth. Even if a cub looks orphaned, mama bear is likely to be nearby.   
  •  Leave pets at home. Dogs and other pets (except for service animals) are prohibited on any park trail in the Smoky Mountains National Park, except for the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail.
  • Carry spray. If it offers peace of mind, you may carry bear pepper spray in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the strict purpose of protecting yourself from bodily harm against aggressive wildlife.

2. Keep calm

If you notice that a bear seems to have taken an interest in you, remember to stay calm and do not approach it. The bear is unlikely to attack unless provoked. 

  •   Speak calmly. Speaking calmly in a low voice can “remind” the bear that you are not prey. You can slowly spread your arms to make yourself appear large.
  •  Pick up any small children. You do not want the bear to mistake small children for prey.
  •  Move away slowly. If possible, walk sideways to remain non-threatening. Keep eye contact with the bear. Do not attempt to run or climb a tree. Move to higher ground if possible.

3. Know what to do in an (unlikely) attack

In the improbable event that a black bear does attack, do NOT play dead. (This tip only works for brown bears and grizzly bears). Attempt to scare it away. Use spray if available. You can fight back by using sticks, rocks, fists, etc., aiming for its eyes and snout. If you fight back, most black bears will give up.  

You should never attempt to provoke a bear to fight. Remember that these tips are best practices, but the best encounter with a bear is no encounter at all, so always keep your distance and stay alert. And enjoy your trip to the Smokies!

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