Even though they look cute and cuddly, black bears are wild animals and are dangerous and unpredictable. While visiting the Great Smoky Mountains please do not approach the bears or allow them to approach you and do not feed them! “Panhandler” bears, who have had access to human food and garbage only live half of their normal life expectancy. Not to mention, you can be fined up to $5,000 and sentenced to six months in jail for feeding bears and improper food storage. Many areas around the country are rapidly developing to accommodate more housing. Because of their loss of habitat in North America, black bears are now confined to wooded areas or dense brush land. In the Smokies, you can often see a black bear in the Cades Cove area and many other areas in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ober Gatlinburg also has a black bear exhibit containing bears.
About Black Bears
Black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains are black in color, but in other parts of the country they can be brown or cinnamon in color. These creatures can grow up to six feet in height standing. A male black bear usually weighs about 250 pounds, while the female black bear generally weighs just over 100 pounds. However, by the fall, black bears can double their weight preparing for the winter months. This has been observed by the park staff as the black bears in this area have been documented weighing over 600 pounds. Wild black bears can live anywhere from 12 to 15 years. Unfortunately, because humans can be careless, these precious creatures sometimes do not live out their life expectancy because they are made to live on berries and when they eat trash it puts toxins in their bodies.
Bears are most active during the early morning and late evening hours in spring and summer. Black bears can run up to 30 miles per hour, swim very well and also climb trees. They will often mark trees with their teeth and claws as a form of communication with other bears. Bears in the Smokies often make their dens at higher elevations in hollowed out trees. They enter dens in October and November and hibernation usually lasts between 3 to 5 months. A special hormone, leptin is released into the black bear’s systems, to suppress appetite. Because they do not urinate or defecate during dormancy, the nitrogen waste from the bear’s body is biochemically recycled back into their proteins. This also serves the purpose of preventing muscle loss, as the process uses the waste products to build muscle during the long periods of inactivity.
Safety Around Black Bears
Black bear attacks on humans are very rare. Between 1900 and 2007, only 60 people were killed in black bear attacks across North America. However, if you do find yourself in an aggressive encounter with a black bear, you should fight back with any object available weather it be a stick, a rock or even your shoe. The bear may be considering you as prey so you want to let it know that you are dangerous to them. Please report all black bear incidents immediately to a park ranger or the park service. Here are a few tips to better protect yourself from a dangerous black bear situation:
- When camping, never cook or store food in or near your tent
- Hang food and other items with strong odors (ie, toothpaste, bug repellent, soap, etc.) out of reach of bears. Hang items at least 10 ft above the ground and. If no trees are available, store your food in airtight or bear-proof containers
- Change your clothing before you go to sleep; don’t wear what you cooked in to go to bed and be sure to store smelly clothing along with your food/smelly items
- Keep the area clean. Be sure to wash dishes, dispose of garbage, and wipe down tables
- Burn garbage completely in a hot fire and pack trash out – don’t bury it
- Don’t surprise bears. If you’re hiking, make your presence known. Make noise by talking loudly, singing, or wearing a bell
- If you can, travel with a group. Groups are noisier and easier for bears to detect
- Keep in mind that bears tend to be more active at dawn and dusk so plan your hikes accordingly
- Stay on marked trails and obey the regulations of the area you’re hiking/camping in
- If you’re hiking in bear country, keep an eye out for tracks, scat, digs, and trees that bears have rubbed