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Black Bears of the Smoky Mountains

All Smoky Mountain Vacations
214 Sharon Dr.
Seymour, TN  37865

The symbol of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), is perhaps the park's most famous resident. The Smokies provides the largest wild but protected bear habitat in the eastern United States. Though populations are variable, biologists estimate approximately 1,600 bears live in the park, a density of over two bears per square mile.


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All black bears in the Smokies are black in color  and may be up to three feet high at the shoulder and six feet in length. Their coat is smooth and short haired, compared to brown bears.

Males typically weigh around 250 pounds, with females averaging 100 pounds. At birth bears weigh eight ounces, yet as they mature they can reach a weight of 400 pounds or more in their general life span of 8 - 12 years. Wild bears may live up to be 32 years old. 

Black Bears of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The American black bear lives in all elevations of the Smoky Mountains and are often seen much closer to the surrounding cities. Smaller than their cousins, the black bear is an agile climber, even in adulthood. Black bears are alert creatures, with a sense of smell more highly developed than other large animals, exceptional hearing and swimming, color vision and the ability to run up to 30 miles per hour.

As they are protected within the boundaries of the park, some bears have lost their fear of man and will even go so far as to beg for handouts. Others congregate around dumps or campsites and seize available food. Scarcity or abundance of natural food has much to do with black bear behavior. Not only will a black bear eat almost anything, it will gorge itself until its stomach can hold no more, sleep it off, and start over again.

Bears, like humans, are omnivores and 80%  to 90% of a bears diet consists of berries, nuts and vegetative matter. In the spring the bears appear to wander aimlessly in search of a plentiful food source, or a mate during breeding season. In June they add insects, grubs, ants and animal carrion (the carcass of a dead animal that becomes food for other scavenging animals) to their diet, and in the fall the main source of foods are berries, mushrooms, acorns and carrion, when available. Fall is a critical period as far as nutrition is concerned, in that sufficient reserves of fat must be built up for the winter. This is particularly important for females with young during the winter retreat.

The black bear hibernates between five and seven months each year. The preferred sites for winter dens include small caves, crevices, geological features or beneath deadfalls. During hibernation the black bear's body temperature falls to about 88 degrees, from a normal of 101 F. The females typically hibernate longer than the males, especially while suckling cubs, retiring earlier in the fall and leaving later in the spring.

Unlike many other mammal babies, cubs are able to follow their mothers full time after the family has emerged from the winter den. The cubs learn everything the mother does including how and where to find food and understanding what is dangerous. Unruly cubs are often disciplined by their mother's growling, grunting or even swatting cubs who have not responded to her vocalizations. Some cubs remain with the sow for up to two years when they become independent and drift away. The cubs supplement their diet with solid matter and the sow's milk becomes of less importance to them as a source of food.


The bear's keen sense of smell is also enticed by human food left on picnic tables or offered from an outstretched hand. Feeding bears or allowing them access to human food causes a number of problems:
~ Nuisance bears damage property and injure people. In 1993, 110 bear related incidents were recorded and extensive property damage occurred.
~ It transforms wild and healthy bears into habitual beggars. Studies have shown that nuisance bears never live as long as wild bears. Many are hit by cars and become easy targets for poachers. Beggar bears may die from ingesting food packaging and aggressive nuisance bears must be destroyed by park managers.
~ For these reasons, National Park Rangers issue citations for improper food storage and feeding bears. These offenses can result in fines of up to $5,000 and jail sentences lasting up to six months. Visitors are urged to view all wildlife at a safe distance and NEVER to leave food or garbage unattended.
~ Be sure to "bear-proof" your food, toothpaste and cosmetics. If your car camping, store food in a food locker, preferably in the trunk of your car, or keep food covered and out of sight.
~ If your backpacking, suspend food and food garbage on the cable systems provided at backcountry campsites.
~ Keep your tent, sleeping bag, clothing and other gear clean and free of food odor.
~ If a bear approaches, keep a safe distance. Never attempt to try to recover or retrieve food or belongings once a bear has possession!  


In many cases, habitual nuisance bears must be trapped and relocated or destroyed. If the bears are moved soon after their roadside begging behavior starts, they have a better chance of returning to natural food foraging behavior. Until 1991, the park's management policy centered on life trapping problem bears and relocating them away from developed areas. Frequently, they returned and had to be trapped repeatedly or removed from the park entirely. Since 1991, wildlife managers have been experimenting with capturing, working-up and releasing nuisance bears back into the same area. The work-up involves tranquilizing the animal and performing a safe medical examination on the bear. While the procedure is harmless to the bear, it is apparently unpleasant and re-instills their fear of humans. This approach allows bears to remain in their home range, but they shy away from the developed areas.

In addition, bear-proof garbage cans have been replaced with larger bear-proof dumpsters in many areas of the park. Volunteers and park staff diligently patrol developed areas in the evenings to watch for bears and to clean up any trash that has been left out. Public education and law enforcement efforts have also been emphasized. So far, the results are encouraging as the number of bears relocated has been greatly reduced.

All Smoky Mountain Vacations
214 Sharon Dr.
Seymour, TN 37865

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