Most Park visitors enjoy seeing a black bear, Ursus americanus, in the wild. It is smaller and less aggressive than its western cousin, the grizzly bear. The Smokies rugged, temperate environment provides excellent bear habitat. Only black bears live in the Park. About 600 bears roam the Park, and many consider Cades Cove their home. The Park has one of the country’s highest bear densities.
Bear life spans average 12 years. A typical male weighs 300 pounds, while females average 230 pounds. Bears, like humans, are omnivores. Their food intake is 85% plant material. They obtain most of their protein from insects, but occasionally eat fish, fawns, or other small animals.
Most bears enter a deep sleep starting in late fall. Most Park bears prepare to den by mid-December. Cubs, usually two, are born in late January. They weigh 8 ounces when born. Bear sightings usually begin in early March, but weather conditions can delay this. Newborns and mothers remain denned until May. Cubs remain with their mothers for a year and a half.
Bears emerge from their prolonged sleep in March or early April (they do not hibernate). July starts the mating season. Young males often travel more than a 100 miles to find a mate. Fertilized eggs lie dormant until denning.
Once awake the search for food begins. Spring foods are scarce, so bears conserve their energy. Berries ripen in July and cherries in August. If the crop is good, these fruits provide ample food. Acorns provide a source of winter fat. Bears eat some high protein foods, including insects, fish, and higher animals. Though bears can run 30 miles per hour, they rarely run down prey. They prefer carrion, or easy prey such as fawns.
It is illegal to feed or harass any Park wildlife. Fines range up to $5,000 and 6 months in prison. Besides being illegal, human foods (and packaging) can kill a bear. They die from asphyxiation or digestive track blockages. A human-fed bear has a lifespan of only 8 years. Tamed bears lose their natural fear of people. Violent bears must be destroyed. Please, for their sake and yours, do not feed the bears.
Park bear management includes population monitoring efforts, and, when necessary, relocation. The Park moves aggressive bears deep into the backcountry. Hopefully, they revert to natural behaviors. If this does not happen, the Park moves the bear to less populated areas. Most of these relocation sites are open to hunting. Tame bears make easy targets.
Although there is no one best place to see bears in the Park, Cades Cove and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail are among the best spots to look. Bears are most active early in the morning and late in the evening.
On the small chance of encountering an aggressive black bear the best action is make a lot of noise (a whistle works well), and slowly retreat. Only when between a mother and her cubs, or when dealing with a hungry, human-fed bear are they dangerous. Bears are excellent climbers, so climbing a tree is ineffective. Playing dead does not work either, since dead animals are part of the black bears’ diet. However, few dangerous bear situations occur.