Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few places remaining in the eastern United States where black bears can live in wild, natural surroundings. For many, this famous Smokies' resident is a symbol of wilderness.
Bears inhabit all elevations of the park. Though populations are variable, biologists estimate that roughly 1,500 bears live in the park. This equals a population density of approximately two bears per square mile. At one time, the black bear's range included most of North America except the extreme west coast. Because of the loss of habitat, the black bear is now confined to wooded areas or dense brushland.
All black bears in the park are black in color, but in other parts of the country they may be brown or cinnamon. They may be six feet in length and up to three feet high at the shoulder. During the summer months, a typical male bear weighs approximately 250 pounds while females are generally smaller and weigh less slightly over 100 pounds. However, bears may double their weight by the fall. Bears over 600 pounds have been documented in the park. Wild bears can live 12-15 years or more. "Panhandler" bears, who have had access to human foods and garbage, have a life expectancy of only half that time.
Bears, like humans, are omnivores. Plant materials such as berries and nuts make up approximately 85% of their diet. Insects and animal carrion provide valuable sources of protein for bears.
Bears have color vision and a keen sense of smell. In addition, they are good tree climbers, can swim very well, and can run 30 miles per hour.
Bear Behavior --
Bears are most active during early morning and late evening hours in spring and summer. Mating usually takes place in July. Both female and male bears may have more than one mate during the summer.
Bears choose a denning site with the coming of cold weather. Dens are usually hollow stumps, tree cavities, or wherever there is shelter. Bears in the Smokies are unusual in that they often den high above the ground in standing hollow trees. Bears do not truly hibernate, but enter long periods of sleep. They may leave the den for short periods if disturbed or during brief warming trends.
One to four cubs are born during the mother's winter sleep, usually in January. Bears weigh eight ounces at birth. Females with newly born cubs usually emerge from their winter dens in late March or early April. Commonly born in pairs, the cubs will remain with the mother for about eighteen months or until she mates . Bears in the park are wild and their behavior is sometimes unpredictable. Although extremely rare, attacks on humans have occurred, inflicting serious injuries and death. Treat bear encounters with extreme caution and follow these guidelines:
If you see a bear remain watchful. Do not approach it. If your presence causes the bear to change its behavior (stops feeding, changes its travel direction, watches you, etc.)-you're too close. Being too close may promote aggressive behavior from the bear such as running toward you, making loud noises, or swatting the ground. The bear is demanding more space. Don't run, but slowly back away, watching the bear. Try to increase the distance between you and the bear. The bear will probably do the same.
If a bear persistently follows or approaches you, without vocalizing, or paw swatting, try changing your direction. If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground. If the bear gets closer, talk loudly or shout at it. Act aggressively and try to intimidate the bear. Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground). Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear. Use a deterrent such as a stout stick. Don't run and don't turn away from the bear. Don't leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.
Most injuries from black bear attacks are minor and result from a bear attempting to get at people's food. If the bear's behavior indicates that it is after your food and you're physically attacked, separate yourself from the food and slowly back away.