Are Tennessee bears just weird? Don’t they know they are supposed to be sleeping?
It’s commonly thought that all black bears (both male and female) spend the entire winter sleep in a dark cave, surviving off of a bunch of stored-up body fat.
But if that’s true, why do we see so many bears actively roaming alongside deer and elk around the Cades Cove Loop in the winter?
Do bears in Tennessee hibernate?
The fact is that black bears in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, unlike some of their northern cousins, are not true hibernators at all.
The entire point of hibernation is to allow an animal to store energy when the outdoor temperature drops and natural food sources become more scarce.
During hibernation, an animal’s body temperature decreases, its breathing slows and its metabolic rate drops.
Well-known hibernators include skunks, bees, snakes, groundhogs, chipmunks and of course, bears.
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So why are bears in Tennessee different?
The simple answer is, it’s just too warm.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States for black bears.
According to the National Park Service, it is true that black bears located in and around the park may enter long periods of sleep or have minimal activity. But a bear’s body temperature does not always drop like a true hibernator, which allows them to wake for short periods of roaming during brief warming trends.
While winter often conjures images of beautiful snow-capped mountain landscapes, the truth is, it really doesn’t get cold enough, or stay cold enough, in East Tennessee to fully hibernate.
Temperatures rarely dip below freezing in the late evening hours with an annual average snowfall of only about 1-2 inches in the foothills.
Bears will still choose a denning site in the winter, which may be hollow stumps, hollow trees or tree cavities, where they will seek shelter. So you might see fewer black bears during the wintertime in the Smokies.
But don’t be too surprised if one wanders up behind you while on a video call with your family on Thanksgiving, which literally happened to me recently. My family was cracking up as I backed away slowly.
Luckily, Mr. Bear didn’t seem too interested in joining the call after his brief cameo appearance.
Black bear cubs never hibernate at all
Here’s a fun trivia fact – newborn bear cubs don’t hibernate at all.
Pregnant mothers often give birth to their cubs during the winter months, usually around late January or February. The bear cubs sleep next to their mother and nurse until the mom is ready to leave her den.
By the time the bear cubs emerge from their winter dens for the first time, which is usually in late March or early April, they are generally about three months of age, weigh about 4-8 pounds (64-128 ounces) and are able to follow their mother in search of food.
This is true even in colder climates where true hibernation takes place.
It’s also not unusual for mother bears to hibernate more lightly compared to other bears because of the need to occasionally wake and tend to their young. A mother’s work is never easy!
What months are bears most active in Tennessee?
Generally speaking, bears are active in the early morning and late evening during the spring and summer.
Sometimes, trails in the Smokies are closed due to bear activity in the fall season. For example, according to a press release from the NPS, bears depend on fall foods such as acorns and grapes to store fat reserves that enable them to survive winter.
Bears are omnivores. Berries and nuts make up a majority of their diet. Insects are also a good source of protein.
In the fall, bears move around a lot during the fall looking for acorns. Some will travel more than 30 miles to feed in a particular stand of oak trees.
Generally, bears are solitary. But in the fall, several bears may be seen feeding in close proximity. They will often feed for more than 12 hours a day and can be concentrated in areas where abundant food sources are found.
During this time period, bears may act more defensively.
But remember, don’t offer bears any human food (or access to the garbage).
They don’t need to rely on us for food. Bears can live about 12-15 years on average. But bears who have access to human waste and food scraps have much shorter life spans.
Do black bears ever alter their hibernation patterns?
Black bears can also change their hibernation patterns if they experience an unusually cold or unusually hot winter.
In fact, according to this article from CNN, black bears around the country in places like Nevada are altering their normal hibernation habits due to unusual warming patterns and warming climates, causing some animals to skip hibernation altogether.
To put it quite simply, if the weather is warm enough, and food is plentiful, there’s simply no need to enter into any form of hibernation or long period of sleep.
Tips for safe bear watching in the Smokies
It’s always exciting to see a bear in the wild. But remember, they are wild animals and can be unpredictable. Also, it is illegal to willfully approach a bear within 150 feet or any distance that disturbs the bear.
Cades Cove is one of the best places to see bears in the wild in East Tennessee, from a safe distance. You will also get a chance to see other wildlife, like white-tailed deer or wild turkeys.
Use binoculars or a telephoto lens if you want to get a better view.
If you plan on hiking, you may carry bear spray for the strict purpose of protection against bodily harm from wildlife. It must be commercially manufactured, labeled and registered with the Environmental Protection Agency and individual states.
Have you ever spotted a black bear during a winter vacation in the Smokies? Let us know in the comments!
View the web story version of this article here.