Bear Safety in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee

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Bear Safety

Even the cutest, friendliest panhandling bear is extremely dangerous if he for any reason thinks of you as a foodbear and motorist source. The bears residing within GSMNP are wild bears. They are not trained bears like the ones we see on television.

Recently a female hiker was killed and partially eaten by a mother bear and her cub. The tragic incident was the first reported fatal attack by black bears in the history of The Great Smoky Mountain National Park. As is any bear that seriously injures a person, the mother bear and her cub were destroyed. Their destruction was necessary as bears are creatures of habit and repeat behavior that results in food for them.

"Officials stress that such incidents are extremely rare. The park receives over 10 million visitors annually and is home to approximately 1,800 black bears with very few injuries. This was not only the first fatal mauling in the Smokies, it was the first fatal attack by a black bear in the history of the entire American National park system," says Smokies Guide, the official newspaper of The Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

bear begging for foodDespite obvious risks, most people feel fortunate if they see a bear while in the park and most do so without placing themselves, others, or the bears in jeopardy. Some visitors, however, definitely get too close to this usually shy but powerful animal. One wildlife photographer described outright bear harassment by some of the park visitors--citing his experiences of having seen a bear literally surrounded by a group which encircled her treed cub while trying to pet it. This was a most dangerous situation. No matter how tame and cute the bears appear, one should never get between a mother and her cubs. Put yourself in her place: if your child was surrounded by wild bears, wouldn't you feel threatened and concerned for the safety of your child? A bear's reaction to this situation can be life-threatening--yours!

GSMNP officials provided the following rules for safe visits to black bear country in The Great Smoky Mountain National Park:

"When You See A Bear:

1. Do not feed or toss food to a bear or any wild animal.
2. Keep children close to you.
3. Keep pets indoors or in a vehicle or camper.
4. Do not approach a bear — they are dangerous. If it changes its natural behavior (feeding, foraging, or movement) because of your presence, you are too close!
5. Never surround or corner a bear.
6. Never run from a bear — back slowly away and make lots of noise. However if the bear starts to approach you, stand your ground. Yell and wave your arms above your head.
7. Encourage others to follow these instructions.
8. Be responsible. Improper behavior on your part may have serious consequences!
9. In the extreme cast that you are attacked by a black bear, try to fight back using any object available. Playing dead is usually not an appropriate response to a black bear attack."

Great Smoky Mountain National Park officials also routinely ask that park visitors to please remember the bearsbear damage to vehicle are wild and you are a guest in its habitat. The park service advises people to stay in the vehicle if you see a bear while driving through the park. If you see a bear while you are on the trail, walk well around it and know that most likely the bear will want to avoid you also. However, if a bear is not afraid of you, it can mean he no longer associates people with danger and may have begun instead to associate people with handouts or food left behind by campers. Again, such bears are unpredictable so be cautious.

Though it is illegal to feed the bears in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and in spite of fines and danger, some people ignore the law and feed the bears anyway. Perhaps the bear’s cute appearance gives those people the false sense that the bear is not dangerous. This is a big mistake. Why? Does being chased by a three hundred pound animal that can run thirty miles an hour sound convincing? This classic nightmare is too often a reality when kindness persuades tourists to feed a panhandling bear but when they do not have enough food to satisfy its enormous appetite. True not all bears respond with aggression to a slow down in the food supply but enough of them do to make the possibility of injury a serious concern. In 1997 alone three hundred fifty nine bear-related incidents were recorded in GSMNP. Some of these were injuries and some were for property damage. One camper in another park lost a couple of fingers while feeding a bear by hand.

Even if you never feed park bears deliberately keep in mind that the bears in the Smokies have a keen sense of smell so they can find berries in the wild, but and are attracted to food of any sort including human food. Overnight campers are advised to hang their food or store food items, in a bear safe container. Cables as well as bear-proof lockers are provided for this purpose in most backcountry campgrounds. However, if you check with the rangers at the visitor center and they don’t have cables at your campground destination, ask them about buying or renting one of the park’s bear-proof canisters.

There is another alternative if you go to an area with no lockers or cables. You can hang your food from a rope strung like a clothesline between two trees. (Note: It is helpful to also drape the rope across a couple of limbs which are strong enough to support the packs but not strong enough to support a bear.) The line must be at least ten feet off the ground and taught enough to support the things you hang from it. The food hung from the rope needs to be at least four feet from a tree trunk or limb.

rope system to protect food and gear

Backcountry campers are also advised not to cook or store food in or near your tent as the food odors may act as a bear magnet. When you leave the backcountry, pack out your trash. Burying unused food will not keep it away from bears that are equipped with long claws for digging. The fire ring should not be left containing any food, food wrappers, foil, cans, glass, etc even if an attempt has been made to burn them. Do all possible to keep bears away from people food as their success in stealing food eventually will eventually result in the bears death. Banging pots together and throwing rocks often discourages bears from coming close to campers. Wild bears live as much as 23 percent longer than panhandler bears. Some estimates place that percentage at 50 percent.

Food issues aside, for safety purposes, it is also helpful to know that bears are protective of their cubs. Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains should not follow a mother and it’s cub for any reason. This behavior has been known to cause injury.

In spite of the obvious risks of mixing bears with people, when you come to the Smokies, keep in mind there are over ten million visitors to GSMNP every year. For most, to see a bear is the highlight of their trip to the Smokies. Only a small percentage come into contact with bears in a negative way. If you follow the park rules about bears found at the visitor center, you and your family have little need to fear your Smoky Mountain vacation will be anything but rewarding.

To report a problem bear inside the park, call 1-865-436-1200 or contact a ranger or GSMNP visitor center. Outside the park, call 1-800-332-0900 (Tennessee) or 1-828-456-4123 (North Carolina) or the local police department.

More Black Bear Info:

Front PageWhere To Find Them • Safety • Habitat
Appearance BreedingBear CubsDietHibernation Links