The Interesting Reason Black Bears Don’t Hibernate in Tennessee

black bear in winter months

It's often too warm in Tennessee for black bears to reach a true state of hibernation (photo by aspenphoto/stock.adobe.com)

Surprising facts about black bears and their cubs in the winter months

It’s commonly thought that all black bears (both male and female) spend the entire winter sleeping in a dark cave, surviving off a bunch of stored-up body fat. So why do we see so many bears actively roaming alongside deer and elk around the Cades Cove Loop in the winter? Don’t they know they are supposed to be sleeping?

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. But in Tennessee, it’s just too warm. 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.

Most of the time, it really doesn’t get cold enough, or stay cold enough, in East Tennessee for bears to truly 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. Instead of truly hibernating, bears will 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 winter, but don’t be too surprised if one wanders up behind you while on a video call with your family on Thanksgiving, which actually happened to me once. 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 appearance.

black bear mother and cub in winter months
A black bear mother nurtures her cub (photo by Susan Kehoe/shutterstock.com)

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 and are able to follow their mother in search of food. Also, it’s also not unusual for mother bears to hibernate more lightly compared to other bears. They will occasionally wake and tend to their young. A mother’s work is never easy!

black bear on deck during winter months
A black bear enjoys a cabin deck in the winter season (photo by Susan Kehoe/shutterstock.com)

Tips for safe bear watching in the Smokies

In the fall, bears are usually quite active, moving 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. During this time period, bears may act more defensively. But remember, don’t offer bears any human food (or access to the garbage). 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. 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. 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!

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

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6 thoughts on “The Interesting Reason Black Bears Don’t Hibernate in Tennessee”

  1. I live in the foothills and our neighborhood experienced a prankster black bear. It rummaged through Christmas decorations, turned over garbage cans and knocked over a beehive. It also stole a hen, which was reportedly a fine momma.

    Reply
  2. I was lucky enough to see two bears in October. Unfortunately they both almost got hit. Slow down in the park people bears don’t know not to dart across the street. Cool to see them though.

    Reply
  3. We just returned from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and I said before going I would like to see a bear or two ! Well I did ! In Gatlinburg at Anakeesta! We were having drinks when we arrived and all of a sudden one bear popped up then another ! Very cool !

    Reply
  4. My husband an I love the Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and The Smokey Mountain area anytime of year. It is one of the most beautiful places we visit every year.

    Reply
  5. In Bryson City NC this past November, as I was driving through the road to nowhere. A cub crossed the street and scampered up an embankment. But he hung around a bit staring at us as we stared at him lol.

    Reply

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