There is a lot of wildlife to see in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina – and it can be exciting for visitors to see animals in their natural habitat.
But it’s important to remember that these beautiful creatures are wild. You are a guest in their home.
Are there black bears in the Smoky Mountains?
Yes! If the Smoky Mountains had an official mascot, it would probably be a black bear.
Biologists estimate that there are about 1,500 bears that live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In fact, it’s one of the largest protected areas for black bears in the eastern United States.
Do black bears attack humans?
It is rare for a black bear to attack a human. But it can happen.
A study by The Wildlife Society documented 59 fatal attacks between 1900 to 2009.
To give that in perspective, that puts the risk of strangling yourself in your own bedsheets roughly 160 times more dangerous.
That being said, it’s extremely important to keep your distance from a wild black bear. It is the safest thing to do for both humans and bears.
Specifically, it is illegal to willfully approach a bear within 150 feet or any distance that disturbs the bear.
And since bears can sometimes be unpredictable, it’s smart to brush up on some safety tips before planning your trip to the Smoky Mountains and know what to do if you see a bear.
1. Avoid a confrontation
While I am likely one of many people who consider black bears to be cute, it’s important to remember that they can be dangerous.
They are, in fact, fast runners, good swimmers, excellent climbers and have very keen senses.
Understanding bear behavior is essential for bears and humans.
According to the National Park Service, to avoid a bear encounter or black bear attacks, you should:
Keep your distance
If you do see a black bear, keep a safe distance.
Again, 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. Make sure the bear has a clear escape route.
It is also a good idea to not hike or travel alone.
Do not feed them (or offer access to food)
Feeding the bears and leaving trash behind will encourage them to be close to humans, and it is dangerous for both humans and bears.
Also, feeding them is also prohibited by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Bears that are no longer afraid of humans have a higher chance of being euthanized by park services.
Hence, feeding them is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.
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.
So, even if a cub looks orphaned, the mother 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.
Bears can easily detect pets and pet food.
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.
Spray should, however, be a last line of defense.
According to the NPS, you can discharge the spray or other deterrent if the bear approaches you within 20 yards.
2. Stay calm
If you notice that a bear seems to have taken an interest in you, remember to stay calm and do not approach it.
A black bear may snap its jaws or swat the ground as a warning.
The bear is unlikely to attack unless provoked. If the bear is in a standing position, it’s a sign that they are simply curious.
Speaking calmly in a low voice can “remind” the bear that you are not prey.
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.
Attempt to scare it away. In addition, if possible, make loud noises by banging pots or pans.
Keep eye contact with the bear. Do not attempt to run or climb a tree. Move to higher ground if possible to make yourself look bigger. You can also slowly spread your arms to make yourself appear large.
3. Know what to do in an (unlikely) attack
In the improbable event that a black bear does stalk you or attack your tent, do NOT play dead. (This tip only works for brown bears and grizzly bears).
Attempt to scare it away. Also, use bear spray if it is available.
You can also fight back by using sticks, rocks, fists, etc., aiming for its eyes and snout.
If you fight back, most black bears will simply give up.
Remember, these tips are meant to be informative. Certainly, the best defense with a black bear is not to have an encounter at all.
Never attempt to provoke a bear to fight, and respect their space when you are visiting their home. Most black bears are typically not interested in humans.
In summary, if you’re planning a trip to the Smokies and want to know what to do if you see a black bear – just follow the simple instructions mentioned in this article.
Try to avoid confrontation, stay calm, keep your eye on the bear as you back away (sideways if possible). Fight back in the unlikely event of an attack.
Have you ever seen a black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains? Let us know in the comments!