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.
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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 1,900 bears that live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That’s about two bears per square mile.
In fact, the park is one of the largest protected areas for black bears in the eastern United States. Therefore, the location is an ideal bear habitat.
Will 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 fatalities from black bears between 1900 to 2009.
While it’s unlikely to be provoked, it’s still 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.
As a rule of thumb, if you see a bear, fully extend your arm in front of you and stick your thumb up. If the bear is not covered completely by your thumb, you are too close.
Should you scream at a black bear?
Not right away. If you see a bear, remain watchful and keep your distance. If a bear is following you or approaching you, the National Park Service says you can talk loudly or shout at it.
When a bear is changing its behavior because of you, you are too close.
What to do if a black bear walks up to you?
If you notice that a bear seems to have taken an interest in you, remember to stay calm. Try changing your direction. If it continues, stand your ground.
You can try to act aggressively to intimidate the bear. Move to higher ground if possible to make yourself look bigger. You can also slowly spread your arms to make yourself appear large.
Do not run away or climb a tree. You can also make loud noises by banging pots or pans.
What does it mean when a black bear stands up?
A standing bear is usually a curious bear. But a bear who is swatting the ground or running toward you is likely demanding more space. A black bear may snap its jaws or swat the ground as a warning.
Remember, if you are causing the bear to change its behavior, you’re too close.
What do I do if I see a black bear?
Since aggressive bears could possibly be encountered, 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.
Understanding bear behavior is essential for bears and humans.
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. They tend to be most active at dawn and dusk but may be out during the day or night as well.
Always avoid putting yourself in a precarious position.
2. Keep your distance
If you do see a black bear, keep a safe distance. There is no reason that you should ever be within 150 feet of a bear.
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. You do not want to make the bear feel threatened.
It is also a good idea to not hike or travel alone whenever possible.
3. Do not feed them (or offer access to food)
Feeding the bears and leaving trash, garbage and food scraps behind will encourage them to be close to humans, and it is dangerous for both humans and bears.
Campsites can be particularly vulnerable as bears have become accustomed to looking for human food. Hikers and campers should follow all precautions on how to store food and remove all traces.
Also, feeding bears is 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.
4. 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.
Remember, even if a cub looks orphaned, the mother bear is likely to be nearby.
5. 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.
In bear country, it’s best to leave your pets at home. Bears can easily detect pets and pet food.
6. Pick up small children
If you come across a bear, you do not want the bear to mistake small children for prey.
7. Carry spray
If it offers peace of mind, using bear spray in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the strict purpose of protecting yourself from bodily harm against aggressive wildlife is allowed.
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.
7. Stay calm
A bear does not typically want to have an encounter with you. Respecting their space will let them know that you are not a threat to them. Also, speaking calmly in a low voice can “remind” the bear that you are not prey.
Again, if the bear seems to have taken an interest in you, you can try making loud noises and try to make yourself appear larger.
8. If all else fails, fight back
In the improbable event that a black bear does stalk you or attack your tent, you should fight back as a last resort. Don’t try to “play possum” as this is only for grizzly bears.
Instead, use bear spray if it is available. You can also use sticks, rocks, fists, etc., aiming for its eyes and snout.
Most black bears will simply give up.
Remember, these tips are meant to be informative. Certainly, the best defense against a black bear is not to have a bear encounter at all.
Never attempt to provoke a bear, and respect their space when you are visiting its home. At the end of the day, 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.
Have you ever seen a black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains? Let us know in the comments!