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.
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
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,
hearing and swimming, color vision and the ability to run up to 30 miles
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
~ 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
~ If a bear approaches, keep a safe distance. Never
attempt to try to recover or retrieve food or belongings once a bear has
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.