The symbol of the Smokies is the Black Bear. Found in all areas of the National Park and the surrounding towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Townsend. Interactions with Bears are becoming increasingly common and they are most definitely not in the bear’s best interest.
In the early days of the National Park bears were wild and not used to seeing humans on a regular basis. As tourism started to develop in this area those encounters became more frequent and it was not uncommon to have bears approach your car while in the National Park looking for a handout. Not many safeguards were in place to protect the bears. Trash was unsecured and people feed the bears which created “problem bears’ that lost their natural fear of humans and they became beggars. Over the years many efforts have been made to see that food and trash are kept safely locked away from prying paws and that visitors and residents alike are educated as to why it is so unhealthy to the bears to receive human food.
Most people are thrilled to see a Black Bear in the wild and cannot wait to take a photograph of them. When one is spotted near the roadside it typically creates the mountain version of a traffic jam that we call a “Bear Jam”. Here are some basic rules to abide by when a bear is spotted:
- Do not stop in the middle of the road, but pull safely to the edge and have all 4 tires off the pavement. Not everyone behind you wants to see the bear, many people are on their way to other places with time tables that do not allow for you to block the road. You could otherwise be ticketed or fined.
- Do not run toward a bear – many times the grass is high and young cubs could be hidden in the grass. Running can cause a bear to become agitated and increase the chances of an unpleasant encounter. There are also numerous snakes found in the Smokies and so please don’t let your children wander off into high grass while focusing on the bear you might receive a snake bite instead.
- Do not ever feed a bear – You feeding a bear for a photo opportunity spells eventual death for the bear. Bears that learn to look for food from humans are much more dangerous and are often killed due to behavior that your fried chicken, potato chips or “Just one cookie won’t hurt” caused.
- Do not get closer than 50 yards to a bear in the wild. That is the National Park Service rule regarding approaching wild animals.
- If you are close enough to cause a bear to change its behavior such as grazing and it stops to notice you then you are too close and need to retreat until the bear resumes its former activity.
- Educate yourself on some subtle warning signs that bears might exhibit: Huffing, Blowing, Bluff Charges are all signs that the bear is stressed by your presence and you need to increase the distance between you and it.
- Secure all food and trash and lock your car at ALL TIMES when in Bear country.
- Enjoy seeing these beautiful creatures, but most of all protect them and behave wisely when visiting the Smokies.