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Black Bears in the Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a large, protected area where black bears can roam freely.  The park service estimates that about 1,500 bears live in the park–that translates to a density of about two of the animals per square mile.  Sighting one of these magnificent creatures is a highlight of a vacation, but caution is necessary for the protection of the bear and of the tourist.  Bears can live 12-15 years or more in the wild, but those which have had access to human food and garbage have a life expectancy of only half that time.  

This mother black bear will defend her cub.

Black bear (Ursus americanus) mother standing in the road with young cub peeking out from the bushes.

Behavior of Bears

Like us, bears are omnivores.  Berries and nuts make up about 85% of their diet.  Insects and carrion are valuable sources of protein.  These creatures have a very keen sense of smell.  Feeding bears, or allowing them access to human food and garbage causes a number of problems.  It causes them to lose their instinctive fear of humans.  Over time this means they may begin approaching people and may become more unpredictable and dangerous.  They may begin to pose a risk to public safety and must be euthanized.  In other cases they come close to human areas and are hit by cars or become easy targets for poachers.  The park service warns us that Garbage Kills Bears!

What Do I Do If I See Bears?

They are beautiful creatures.  But remember that they have color vision, a keen sense of smell, are good swimmers and tree climbers, and can run 30 miles per hour.  The park service provides a short video to help tourists understand what to do if they see a bear http://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/nature/black-bears.htm  If you do see a bear you should remain watchful and not approach it.  Do not allow the bear to approach you.  Being too close may promote aggressive behavior from the bear.  For these reasons, willfully approaching within 50 yards (150 feet) or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear, is illegal in the park.  Use binoculars or a telephoto lens to view them.

If the bear approaches you, don’t run but rather back slowly away.  The bear will probably do the same.  If he continues to approach you, change your direction.  If he continues, stand your ground and talk loudly or shout at it.  Make yourself look as large as possible.  Use a stout stick to intimidate the bear.  It is very rare that you would be physically attacked, but if so you should not play dead.  Fight back aggressively with any available object.

Remember, the goal of bear management is to keep these magnificent animals shy, secretive, and afraid of people.