The Truth About Black Bears in the Smokies
The American Black Bear is one of the cutest, most animated, and funny creatures in the world. They are seen everywhere in the Great Smoky Mountains and Sevier County, Tennessee area.
Ok, so don't freak out.
According to the North American Bear Center, black bears have killed just 61 people across North America since the year 1900.
Ok, let's put that into perspective.
You are 60,000 times more likely to be killed by another human being. Yes, I repeat. You are way more likely to be killed by a human than you are by a bear. You are also more likely to be killed by lightening, a dog, bees or another human, than by a black bear. The woods are one of the safest places you can be.
Black bears are timid creatures. Now, don't get me wrong. They can be unpredictable and agitated and your actions can make them aggressive only if they feel the need to protect themselves.
The least aggressive ones are those that are use to seeing people such as the ones around the towns of the Smoky Mountains. When they do come around, they are usually looking for food. And you - a person - are not on their menu.
There is a huge difference between Grizzly (brown) bears and the Black bear. Grizzly bears are way more dangerous and are located out west - like what you might find in the Rocky Mountains or Alaskan wilderness. The differences are night and day. Grizzly bears will not hesitate to make you their dinner.
But back to gentle black bears. When hiking in the Smokies, or visiting on vacation, their are just a few things to know.
Signs of Black Bears
There are several things you will want to be aware of. Here are some clues a bear may be or have been nearby.
1.) Knocked over trash
Especially large, bear-proof bins like in the picture below.
I took this photo when I was working at this cabin in Pittman Center. I had just arrived. The cabin was vacant, and sat back on a dead end road. When I saw this, I knew I needed to be extra vigilant. If you arrive at your rental cabin on your vacation, and you see this, use extra caution. Bears are a part of the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, and yes this is normal at times, so just use common sense. Never leave your trash, pets, or kids outside unattended!
This is a bear proof trash container and this bear was not successful. I doubt a raccoon could have tipped this heavy metal bin over. I inspected many vacant cabins over the years and arriving to see trash strewn all over the porch was not uncommon. While it can be other animals who tear into bags, the large bin tipped over is a sign of a bear. Bears will try to drag an entire bag of trash off of a porch.
The photos below are ones I have taken over the years. Black bears know where the trash bins are. That's pretty obvious! Some of these were right outside a cabin far out in Wears Valley, leading out from the woods. One picture was taken outside a laundry facility at a resort in the parking lot on top of a mountain. The wheel is one of the golf carts that we used to deliver items to guests all over this huge resort in Gatlinburg.
They know where to check for food. They know where humans have been and food may have been left.
Black bears are very shy, yet intelligent creatures, so they want to really avoid humans and the spotlight as much as possible. Only the hungriest will risk contact with people in order to eat. Feeding them is a HUGE "DON'T".
How to Bear Proof Your Cabin, Campsite or Hike
Before we start bear proofing, there is one item I think will make anyone feel safer and that is Bear Spray. Bear spray is legal for self defense in The Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Although you probably won't need to use it, the peace of mind and security of knowing you have it on your hip so you can enjoy your hiking, camping or swimming is priceless.
I like Frontiersman Bear Spray because it is the top rated spray. It's EPA approved (legal) and is affective up to 35 feet and comes with a holster and a glow in the dark safety so you can get to it quick.
Also, bear spray works for aggressive dogs, so when you're not out hiking in the back country, your bear spray can still defend you. I am an animal and dog lover, hands down. But any animal can be unpredictable. Walking through my neighborhood one day, I realized how many dogs were barking and one came out and looked as if it might chase me.
We've all had similar experiences but the thing is, this will disable the animal, not kill it. And that's another reason i like it.
Bear Proofing is mostly about food. According to The National Park Service, alot of things can be considered food to bears. Anything that has a scent can attract curious and hungry bears. Things like cosmetics, canned goods, bottles, drinks, soaps, fuels, toiletries, trash, coolers, sunscreen, bug sprays, and meal prep items like pots, dishes, etc, all need to be stored properly.
Bears are amazing and resourceful and sometimes show up in unexpected places. I worked at a resort on the northern side of Sevierville, (about 15 miles from the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) that had bear visits. Sevierville is a less common place to see bears, but I can assure you--they are there.
Bears will enter your vehicle without hesitation. Some of them have figured out how to open car doors and other things. They can use their paws like hands. They can be cute and funny, but also they are wild animals. They can cause alot of damage to your belongings and also become unafraid of humans.
IMPORTANT Bears that lose their fear of humans have a higher chance of being killed. They can be euthanized by Park Services in some cases, or killed by poachers or traffic. It is not good for bears to get use to eating "people food."
The bear cubs and the mother in the pictured above were sent to me by a coworker from a cabin I inspected in Wears Valley. They were working in the cabin when they looked out of the window and saw the bear and her cubs had decided to rummage through their truck.
They will also not hesitate to walk into open doors. Do not leave your cabin doors as an open invitation.
Bear canisters are containers helpful for storing your food and scented items in. Some National Parks require them. They make it extremely hard for bears to open. And if they do get a hold of them, your food won't be crushed. There are different styles and sizes of canisters, depending on your needs.
I like the ones you can see into so you know what you have when it's closed. Ease of opening and shutting is also important. If you need one that is waterproof that is also an option. Bear proof food canisters can also double for storage of other things when necessary.
If you are camping, everything with a scent needs to go into canisters. Keep your canister about 100 feet from your sleeping area. In the back country of the National Park, food is required to be hung on bear cable systems at GSMNP campsites or shelters. Some campgrounds provide food lockers, but not all. For a short day hike, keep a small canister in your backpack if you are carrying snacks or lunch. For picnics, food and food prep items should be kept in your locked vehicle (preferably the trunk) and never leave food or trash unattended. Trash needs to go into bear proof trash bins.
Bears are less and less shy about coming into resort areas. The bear in the picture above was in a crowded resort in Gatlinburg. I was in my car leaving when I saw it, so I stopped and took the picture out my car window. Right behind me was a swimming pool area crowded with several people oblivious to the bears presence. This bear never bothered anyone.
Keep grills and grill areas clean. Also, if you feed pets outdoors, make sure they will eat all of the food you give them. It is not recommended to feed birds or other wildlife in any areas where bears are.
Laws About Black Bears
Park rangers in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park can and will give you a ticket for littering, improper food storage and feeding bears. This can result in a fine of $5,000 and even jail. You should never get close to a bear. Some people try to get up close and personal when they see a bear, try to take photos or videos, and that is just not cool. Use your camera zoom, and respect the wild creatures in their homes. Or, just enjoy the moment and watch from a safe distance.
You must 150 feet away from bears and elk. Feeding, touching or teasing is not allowed.
Traps and hunting are not allowed in The Great Smoky Mountain Natinonal Park.
If you see others breaking the law in the GSMNP, please call (865) 436-1230 to report it and help protect the bears.
CAUTION - What to Do if You See a Black Bear?
Smoky Mountain Black Bears (American Black Bear) are most active during morning and early evening during Spring and Summer. Here are some easy tips to remember when hiking, picnicking, camping or visiting The Smoky Mountains.
It is preferable not to hike alone.
Carry bear spray in a wearable holster so you can easily access it if needed
Pack food and scented items in bear proof canisters
Make alot of noise while hiking to alert bears so you don't frighten them
Watch the video at the bottom of this page
Some people like to carry bear bells or air horns to scare bears away
Watch the bear, stay alert, but do not approach it
Do NOT allow the bear to come close to you
Put as much distance between you and the bear as possible
Back away slowly if the bear sees you
If there is food nearby, move away from the food
If a bear acts aggressively toward you, stand your ground (don't run) and yell, shout, throw rocks, pick up sticks and try to scare the bear away by raising your arms and making yourself look bigger. Playing dead with black bears does not work. Don't do it.
This would be the time to use your bear spray and air horn if the bear shows aggression. Bear spray works up to 35 ft away. An air horn may work to scare the bear, and it can also get other's attention.
Interesting Facts About Black Bears
Black bears are not all black. In the Smoky Mountains, they are mainly black. In some other parts of the country, though, they can be brown or cinnamon colored.
Mother bears will usually give birth while they are hibernating in winter.
Wild bears will usually live about 15 years.
Bears will sometimes fake a charge to scare or intimidate, but then, ultimately leave.
There area approximately 2 black bears per square mile in The Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Check out the interesting video below that demonstrates what to do if you see see a black bear in the