Finding Black Bears in The Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina

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Where To Find the Black Bear in the Park

Smoky Mountain Black Bears range in every elevation of the park, but due to the bear’s avoidance of human contact, you would hardly know the bears are present. Many people come to the park for several years without seeing any bears and are disappointed. You can increase your chances of seeing a Black Bear in the park if you bears range the entire park know a little about bear behavior and look for bears accordingly. Do be careful however.

It is helpful to know that Smoky Mountain Black Bears often spend their days high in trees. During spring, summer and fall, the bears like to stay in the trees so that they can forage for food such as buds, acorns, bird eggs, salamanders, and insects. In summer when bears are not eating the bounty found in the treetops, they sprawl out on large limbs to rest. Sometimes park bears of GSMNP like to lie underneath trees. Many are especially fond of lying underneath conifer trees. Unlike most Black Bears, the park bears of the Great Smoky Mountains even hibernate high up in tree cavities.

For some reason, American Black Bears seem to prefer the Tennessee side of GSMNP, and are perhaps most easily sited in Cades Cove. This famous piece of the Smokies is maintained in pastureland in an effort to preserve some of the farming history of the park. The resulting openness is not only incredibly beautiful, but it makes sighting wildlife, including the elusive bear far easier. Morning and late afternoon are often the best times for seeing wildlife in Cades Cove as well as other places in the park. The reason--morning and afternoon are the preferred mealtime and is therefore a good time to see the animals moving about. Many a delighted tourist has thrilled as they watched wildlife amble across the Cades Cove loop road in search of food.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is also a good location in which to look for bears. Bears are typically spotted crossing the road or where acorns, nuts and berries are abundant—fifty-nine percent of park bears diet consists of these things. You may also want to look for bears along stream banks where there is thick undergrowth or where the fishing is good. Great Smoky Mountain Black Bears are good swimmers. On rare occasions they can even be seen swimming across Lake Fontana!

looking for tourists foodMore commonly, Smoky Mountain Black bears are found in picnic grounds where their keen sense of smell has led them to tidbits of food left by tourists. These picnic ground marauders begin their behavior at night when they can avoid human contact, but as they enjoy the food laced with the scent of humans, the offending bears lose one of their basic survival instincts—the fear of man. It is at this time that an individual park bear begins coming to the picnic grounds during daylight hours. Of course this makes contact with GSMNP visitors likely. While amusing to tourists who want to see the bears wandering through, the behavior places both tourist and bears in danger.

The object of looking for bears as you hike, bike, drive or otherwise pass through the park should be to view the bears from a safe distance. Keep this in mind at all times and be sensible as you look for bears in the park. If you are lucky enough to see a bear, you should observe him only briefly, from a distance and move on. This wise behavior will help the bears remain afraid of humans, wild and protected. For your safety and the safety of the park bears, it is well to remember that GSMNP bears are not usually dangerous when wild and leery of humans, but are inherently dangerous if semi-tame.

Feeding the park bears in the Smoky Mountains is extremely dangerous for you and especially for the people who later come into contact with the bear you fed. Having lost their fear of humans, the panhandler bear’s half-wild personality makes them very unpredictable. Their behavior causes property damage and injuries. For this reason, taming the wild bears by feeding them is against park regulations. Citations for feeding bears are issued each year by National Park Rangers with penalties and fines as high as $5,000 and six months in jail. These fines may seem high, but when you consider the panhandler bear is a threat to himself as well as to humans you can understand the fines are appropriate.

Panhandlers, also known as habituated bears, live half as long as wild bears. They may be hit by cars. They are black bear panhandling vulnerable to poachers in search of valuable bear gall bladders used in Asian folk medicine. Also, Black bears that habitually frequent trashcans are in danger of ingesting toxins in found in garbage and plastic food packaging. Some bears die painful deaths after eating garbage and trash saturated with food smells.

The worse threat to a bear comes in the unfortunate case that the bear injures a human. Park bears that injure humans are quickly destroyed by the park service. The best way to discourage an aggressive bear is by loud noises. The park service suggests banging pots together or perhaps using a whistle. Both things scare and confuse the bears. By the way, the park service also suggests that you make a speedy retreat but without running. Running indicates to the bear that you are prey. Throwing rocks and sticks also runs them away. Fortunately, there has only been one fatal bear incident in the entire history of the GSMNP. For more information see the Safety and Black Bears section of this site or stop by the visitor center at the park.

As a visitor of The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, it is your duty to protect the bears and other tourists by helping to keep the park and surrounding areas a wild environment for them. While in the park, you should avoid leaving food unattended. If you must leave food it must be hung from a tree to discourage the bears from trying to get it. Also, when ever you leave a picnic or campground, please be careful to remove all food scraps from your site so that future visitors will be insured of a safe trip to the Smokies. Make sure there is no food hiding in the fire ring. Clean the tabletops and dispose of food scraps in the bear-proof dumpsters provided by the park service.

If you are staying in a cabin or chalet near the park please do not leave food of any type outside for pets or wildlife such as birds or squirrels. Once a bear learns to successfully seek food from people and civilization, he becomes what is known as a habituated bear. A habituated bear can not unlearn behavior that nets him food. Therefore a habituated bear can never be persuaded to stay away from people and particularly from their garbage cans and dumpsters, bird feeders, and so forth. Such a black bear will simply become more and more of a threat to itself and others as he begins to destroy property and put people in danger. These bears that frequent more developed areas are often killed by cars, poachers and licensed hunters.

More Black Bear Info:

Front Page • Where To Find Them • SafetyHabitat
Appearance BreedingBear CubsDietHibernation Links