The Black Bear Necessities

Black BearThere has been a lot of talk recently on various Facebook groups and in the news about the amount of bear activity in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   While the activity this year is no more or less than prior years, early spring is the most active time for Black Bears, and in particular females with cubs.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the largest protected habitat for Black Bears in the United States.   Black Bears can be found at any elevation, and in any location within the park.  Biologists estimate that there are approximately 1,500 or so Black Bears within the National Park borders.

This works out to be around two black bears per square mile.  Even with these numbers, you’re likelihood of seeing one is fairly low.   We’ve been hiking in the park for more than eight years, and have only seen two bears.

The look of black bears varies based on their location, but black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are black.  They can be upwards to 6 foot tall, and 3 foot tall to their shoulder when on all fours.  During the summer months, when well fed, male black bears can weight up to 250 pounds.  Females tend to weight less, at a little over 100 pounds.

Black bears have a strong sense of smell, can see in full color like humans, can run upwards to 30mph, and are very skilled at climbing trees.  They are more active in the mornings and evenings.

You can read more about black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on their website.

Black Bear Tips

  • Black Bear EscapeDo NOT, under any circumstances feed the bears – This is the biggest mistake people make.  Feeding Bears associates humans with food, which can result in aggressive behavior towards people.  When this occurs, the bear often has to be killed.
  • Do NOT approach closer than 150 feet.  Violating this guideline is against the law and you can be arrested and fined.
  • Leave No Trace – You’ll see this on various park signs throughout the park, and they share this for a reason.  When you leave food behind it attracts bears and associates people to bears.
  • Carry your food in ziplock or sealed bags
  • Be aware of your surroundings and watch and listen for wildlife, including bears and snakes
  • If you see a black bear, maintain a safe distance, and always face the bear when in sight range.  If the bear changes it’s behavior, you are too close!  Move away slowly.
  • If the bear shows aggressive behavior, like pawing at the ground, charging at you, or making loud noises, you are way to close.  Remain facing the bear, and slowly back away until the bear resumes it’s normal activity.  Do not run, a bears natural instinct is to chase you.
  • Always maintain a safe distance, and take extra precaution with a mother bear and her cubs.  Do not allow yourself to get between a mother bear and her cubs.
  • If the bear approaches (this rarely ever happens), move away.  If the bear continues to approach, change direction, group up and make lots of noise, yell things like “Go Bear!”, “Go Away Bear”, etc.  If the bear continues and starts to get too close, continue to yell, and stand your ground.  Act very aggressively to intimidate the bear.  Try to find an area of higher ground so you look bigger.  You can also throw non-food items at the bear, like rocks, sticks, etc.
  • If you think the bear might be after food, separate yourself from it.
  • As a last resort, and you feel you are being mortally threatened, use Bear Spray or a strong pepper spray.

If you are in the very rare instance of being physically attacked, fight back with everything you have.  DO NOT play dead, this does not work with Black Bears.  I personally carry a small pocket knife with me, not only due to it coming in very handy, but also for defensive purposes if needed.

Here’s a video that shows someone being too close, and the bear let’s them know by stomping and hissing.   Some early signs that they were too close is the bear changing behavior.  Notice that it keeps watching them.   If a black bear is watching you and changing its behavior, and especially if it makes noise, stomps or paws you are too close.

The Biggest Threat to Black Bears

Black Bear GarbageYou might be surprised to learn that the biggest threat to black bears is people.  Specifically our trash.   A black bears keen sense of smell helps then forage for food, but also attracts them to human food and garbage.

People feeding bears, either intentionally or unintentionally through garbage can cause major issues, primarily losing their fear of people.  When the bears are fed, or see people leaving trash they associate the food with people.  When this occurs, the bears may begin to approach people looking for food leading them to become unpredictable and often dangerous to people.

Black bears aggressively approaching people can often result in the bear having to be euthanized for safety reasons.  A very sad end result.  Studies have been done that show bears that feed from humans and human trash don’t leave near as long as bears that feed off natural food sources.  Why?  These lose their fear of people, get shot by people protecting themselves or their homes, get hit by cars, or killed by poachers due to being easy targets.

Littering, feeding the bears, or improperly storing food items can result in $5,000 fines issued by Park Rangers.  This can even result in 6-month jail sentences.  Remember: Garbage kills bears.

How can you help?

  1. Do not feed the bears … ever.  Even when you think they look hungry.
  2. Properly store food items.
  3. Take your trash out of the park with you or properly dispose of it in bear safe trashcans located in numerous locations around the park.  This includes not disposing of banana peels and orange peels by throwing them on the ground.
  4. When camping in the backcountry, use the food storage cables to elevate your food above the ground.  When food storage cables are not found, use rope  and a tree.
  5. If you see someone breaking these rules, or encounter a bear in a picnic area or campground, please call (865) 436-1230 or stop at a Visitor Center to report it.

Black Bear Cubs

Photo credits: Valerie, Ian Matchett, Anaxolotl, Liza

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