Bears in the Smokies: How to Keep Safe

Black Bear

A black bear spotted on the side of the Cherokee Orchard Trail road in September 2012.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park features an amazingly diverse selection of wildlife within its beautiful natural setting. Despite being able to catch glimpses of everything from deer to elk to snakes and salamanders, though, visitors to the park tend to focus on spotting one creature in particular - the black bear.

What exactly makes these powerful yet mesmerizing animals so appealing to park visitors?  Maybe it is their seemingly nonchalant movements or their resemblance to life-sized stuff animals or their sometimes playful mannerisms.  Their sheer size is something behold as well.  A typical male brown bear weighs approximately 250 pounds during the summer months, while females generally weigh slightly over 100 pounds.  Bears may double their weight in the fall, however, and bears weighing over 600 pounds have actually been documented in the park.

While black bears may seem from a distance to be the be the perfect type of wildlife to have an up-close Smoky Mountain encounter with, however, they can, in fact, prove to be quite dangerous to humans.  Attacks on humans are extremely rare, as evidenced by a recent study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management which found only 63 people have been killed by black bears in the United States and Canada over the last 109 years.  Seventeen of those deaths, however, have come since 2000, which leads the study's lead author, Dr. Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, to conclude the increase in fatalities has less to do with aggressive behavior on the part of bears and more to do with humans attempting to approach the animals on a larger scale.

"It's not an increase in hungry bears," said Dr. Herrero. "It's simply more and more people out there interacting with bears."

Bears actually inhabit all elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Biologists estimate that approximately 1,500 bears live in the park, which equals a population density of roughly two bears per square mile.  With such a high population, there is at least some chance a visitor to the park could experience a face-to-face encounter with a bear.

The threat a black bear can pose does not necessarily mean, however, that they should be avoided altogether, as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers its visitors plenty of opportunities to observe these fascinating animals in their natural habitat.  By keeping a few simple safety rules in mind, park visitors can help keep their bear-viewing experience a safe and happy one.

The two areas visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park should be most concerned with concerning encounters with bears are along the trail and in camp.  Obviously, these more exposed, outdoor areas lend themselves to better wildlife viewing, but they also can place visitors in an environment with less physical protection.  Even though the American Bear Association estimates that a person is 180 times more likely to be killed by a bee and 160,000 times more likely to die in a car accident than to be attacked by a bear, the potential for injury still exists.

On The Trail

Should you encounter a bear on one of the park's many trails, remain watchful and do not approach it.  A good indicator of whether you're too close to a bear is if your presence causes it to change its behavior.  For instance, if the bear stops feeding, changes its travel direction, or pauses to watch you, you're too close.  This can lead to the bear displaying aggressive behavior, such as running toward you, making loud noises, or swatting the ground, in an attempt to make more space for itself.  While you should do your best to oblige its wishes, you should do so slowly.

Never attempt to run away from a bear, as they can travel at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.  It is better to slowly back away, keeping your eyes on the bear at all times.  In most instances, the bear will cease its aggressive behavior and leave you alone.

If a bear continues to follow you, though, without making noise or swatting its paws, changing direction can sometimes cause it to stop.  If this course of action on your part does not work, you'll have to stand your ground.  Sometimes aggressive behavior, such as talking loudly or shouting, on the part of humans can actually intimidate bears.  If possible, move to higher ground to make yourself appear larger.  You can even throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear.  Sometimes a stout stick can even act as a deterrent.

Whatever you choose to do to discourage the bear from his course of action, however, be sure to not use food as a deterrent.  Most injuries from black bear attacks result from their attempting to get at people's food.  If it appears a bear is attempting to get to your food, it is best to slowly back away and abandon it.  If the bear does not appear interested in your food, it may be considering you as prey.  If you are attacked physically, you'll have no choice but to aggressively fight back using any object available.

In The Camp

Of course, the best way to avoid a dangerous encounter with a bear in your camp is to not attract them there in the first place. Black bears possess a keen sense of smell, which can cause them to be attracted to areas with any number of odors.  Food smells, in particular, attract bears, which is why National Park Rangers can issue citations of up to $5,000 for improper food storage. Penalties can also include jail sentences of up to six months.

Cooking and sleeping areas in camps need to be kept separate.  Tents and sleeping bags should be kept free of food odors; food, garbage, or other possible attractants such as toothpaste or soap should not be stored in them.  All food and litter should be packed out of the camp.  A clean campsite is essential in reducing the chances of a bear encounter.

Regulations for proper food storage include securing all food and other attractants at night or when not in use.  If food storage devices are present, they need to be used.  If not, all odorous items need to be stored in your pack and secured in trees.  Two trees should be selected, 10-20 feet apart, with limbs at least 15 feet high.  Using a rock for a weight, toss a rope over a limb on the first tree and tie one end to your pack, then repeat this process with the second tree.  Then raise the pack approximately six feet off the ground with the first rope, tying the end of the rope off when you are finished.  Then pull the second rope until the pack is suspended at least 10 feet off the ground.  The pack must also be evenly spaced between the trees, hanging four feet or more from the nearest limb.

Bears and Food

Hang Your Food

Illustration on how to hang your odorous supplies in the backcountry. Illustration provided by the National Park Service.

Ironically, keeping bears away from human food is as beneficial to the bears as it is to people. "Panhandler" bears who have had access to human foods or garbage tend to only live half of the average 12-15 year lifespan of a normal black bear.  These bears are often transformed from wild and healthy animals into habitual beggars, wandering into the path of oncoming vehicles or becoming easy targets for poachers.  They can also die from ingesting food packaging or toxins.

Feeding bears or allowing them have access to human food cause them to lose their instinctive fear of humans, making them more unpredictable and dangerous to park visitors.  While some bears may simply perform tricks in the hopes of obtaining food, others may damage property and even injure people.  In 2009, 288 bear-related incidents were recorded in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with one incident involving an injury to a park visitor and others resulting in extensive property damage.

Because of the potential problems that can accompany them, the park has adopted a policy where panhandler bears must be aversively conditioned or destroyed.  The sooner a bear is managed after it begins to lose its wild instincts, the better the chances of it returning to foraging for its own food.

Prior to 1991, the park's bear management policy centered on live trapping of problem bears and then moving them away from developed areas.  Unfortunately, many of the bears would simply return to their previous homes, which meant they had to be trapped repeatedly or, in some instances, moved away from the park entirely.

Wildlife managers now prefer using proactive aversive conditioning to manage problem bears.  This involves capturing, working-up, and releasing these bears back into their original areas.  A "work-up" involves tranquilizing the bear and performing a safe medical examination on it.  This is a harmless procedure, but it very unpleasant to the bear and helps to re-establish a fear of humans. Using this method, the bears are allowed to remain in their home ranges, and they shy away from the developed areas they were causing trouble in.

Other bear management measures in the park include the replacing of bear-proof garbage cans with larger bear-proof dumpsters, patrols being conducted by volunteers and park staff of the busiest picnic areas in the evenings, and increased efforts to clean up any trash that has been left out.  Public education and law enforcement efforts have also produced encouraging results.

Respecting Nature

As with any other wild animal, black bears can be a wonder to behold if the proper precautions are taken to ensure both human and animal safety.  Please be respectful of these amazing creatures during your next visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and help ensure your experience with nature is a pleasant one.