10 Facts About Black Bears in the Smokies

An estimated 1,500 black bears live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Have you seen one?

Every time we’ve been to the Smokies, we’ve tried to see black bears. Doesn’t everyone?

Well … not everyone. In fact, my friend Kim is taking her family on a trip to the Smokies soon. They’ve never been. They can’t wait to visit Ober Gatlinburg, and they have the perfect cabin all picked out. But one thing is weighing on her mind … bears, bears, and more bears, oh my!

So, Kim, this is for you. Information is key.

Here are 10 facts about black bears in the Smokies:

  • Did you know that it’s illegal to “willfully” approach black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? You must stay 50 yards, or 150 feet away. If you don’t, you can be charged fines or even be arrested!
  • The Great Smokies is one of the very few places remaining in the eastern United States where black bears still live in the wild.
  • Black bears live all over the park, at all elevations. Biologists estimate that 1,500 black bears live in the Smokies, which equals about two bears per square mile.
  • Though black bears can be brown or cinnamon in color, all the black bears that live in the Smokies are actually black.
  • A typical male black bear will weigh around 250 pounds in the summer, but often double that by fall. Bears of more than 600 pounds have been documented in the park. Black bears can be as long as six feet and as high as three feet at the shoulder. They can run up to 30 miles per hour.
  • Black bears can live 12-15 years easily. However, bears that have had access to human food and garbage often only live half that time.
  • Black bears usually mate in July. Both males and females usually have more than one mate. So they’re that kind of bunch…
  • Black bears do not truly hibernate, but they do have long periods of sleeeeep. Sounds nice to me. They may leave the den for short periods of time during the winter months.
  • One to four babies are born during the mother’s winter sleep, usually in January. Cubs weigh about 8 ounces (isn’t that crazy small??) and stay with their mothers for about 18 months.
  • When bears are fed, it changes the bear’s wild behavior and causes bears to be more dangerous to humans. When a bear becomes a “nuisance,” it is trapped, tranquilized and given a safe but “unpleasant” medical procedure that re-instills a fear of humans. Sounds awful, huh? So, please, please, don’t feed bears or leave out trash!

Now, what to do if you see a black bear:

  • Do not approach it. We already said that.
  • Rule of thumb: If your presence causes a bear to change its behavior (stop eating, change the direction its moving, etc.), you are too close.
  • If a bear starts running toward you or acting aggressively, don’t run away. Instead, slowly back away, while watching the bear. The bear just wants more space.
  • If a bear persists in following you, try changing your direction. If that doesn’t work, stand your ground. Talk loudly or shout at the bear. Act aggressively. If you have companions, act as a group. Make yourself look as large as possible. Throw rocks or sticks at the bear. Don’t run or turn away from the bear.
  • If a bear is trying to get your food, separate yourself from the food and slowly back away.
  • Report any bear incidents to a park ranger immediately. In 2009, 288 bear-related incidents were recorded in the park.

Information courtesy of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

About Kendra