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The Bear Facts

Posted by Leif Palmer in Smoky Mountains

It's the brass ring of any trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park – seeing a black bear, live and in person. Often, you can just be motoring through one of the park's thoroughfares or maybe hiking along a trail and see a mother bear and her cubs venturing out of woodland's cover and into areas that are occupied by humans.

Unfortunately, too many visitors to the park put themselves and the native bear population at risk simply by not understanding bear behavior and how to (or how not to) interact with these iconic beasts. So this week, we're going to pass along the bare essentials when it comes to black bear dos and don'ts. This could come in handy during your visit to the mountains, because our Smoky Mountain cabins are on the doorstep of the national park.

First, understand that black bears are wild animals. They're not zoo exhibits or trained creatures. They can be very dangerous, even lethal, when threatened, so park visitors are well advised to keep their distance if a bear is spotted in the wild. As a matter of fact, willfully approaching within 50 yards of a bear, or within any distance that disturbs or displaces it, is actually illegal in the national park.

If you see a bear, the first thing to do is simply keep an eye on it and keep your distance. If your presence causes the bear to change its behavior, that means you're too close. In that case, do not run but slowly back away, still watching the bear. Chances are the bear will be just as happy to put that distance between you.

However, if a bear continues to follow or approach, without making noises or swatting its paw, then change your direction. If the bear is still following you, then stand your ground. I know this seems counterintuitive, but bears run faster than humans, and that's a race you will lose. Rather, talk loudly, shout at it and try to make yourself look bigger by raising your arms in the air or claiming higher ground. Throw rocks at the bear, anything to maintain an aggressive stance.

Normally, you shouldn't throw food at a bear, but if you're in an area where it's clear that the bear is more interested in your food than you, then slowly back away from the food and let the bear have at it. In general, however, human food and garbage are bad for the bear population. Primarily, feeding bears or allowing them access to human food changes their behavior and causes them to lose their instinctive fear of humans. Over time, this can cause bears to proactively approach people in search of food and to encroach on areas populated by humans. This poses increased danger to the bears in the form of potential traffic mishaps, and it can result in property damage to people when bears invade their property in search of food.

So next time you're in the national park and spot a bear, keep these tips in mind and make it a pleasant experience for all involved.

Leif Palmer - Smokies blogger

About Leif Palmer

Leif Palmer loves residing in the Smoky Mountains. He is an avid outdoorsman: rowing for exercise on the lake, trail hiking, and free climbing rocks in the mountains. He indulges his arty side by periodically beating up pieces of marble by sculpting. He is always frustrated by his inability to sink long putts, and hates his curly hair (but his wife loves it). Leif has been known to muster enough courage to change a diaper, and hopes his son will become a chip off the old block.


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