See a bear in the Smokies? What to do and how to report rule-breakers

There are around 1,500 bears in the GSMNP area. That begs the question- what should you do when you see one?
Published: Jun. 10, 2022 at 11:16 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 16, 2022 at 1:31 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency estimates there are around 1,500 black bears in the Appalachian Mountains area in East Tennessee and North Carolina. That begs the question; what should you do when you see one?

While bears may be cute, they are still wild animals. The Tennessee state website has a list of guidelines for interacting with bears- chief of which is to never feed a bear. “The age-old adages: GARBAGE KILLS BEARS and A FED BEAR IS A DEAD BEAR could not be truer,” the website reads. The problem stems from habituation, or making a bear comfortable around humans. Doing this can be deadly to a bear, the website states.

While there are currently no laws against feeding (intentionally or accidentally) bears in Tennessee, it is illegal to willfully come within 50 yards of a bear while in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. According to Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials, “park rangers issue citations for littering, feeding bears, and for improper food storage. These citations can result in fines of up to $5,000 and jail sentences lasting up to six months.”

The GSMNP has a list of steps you can take to protect bears:

  • Dispose of all garbage or food scraps in bear proof garbage containers or take it with you.
  • Do not feed wildlife. Feeding a bear guarantees its demise!
  • Do not approach within 50 yards or any distance that disturbs a bear.
  • Do not allow bears to approach you.
  • Use the food storage cables to store your food and garbage when camping in the backcountry.

Park officials also encourage visitors to report people who break these rules, which you can do by calling 865-436-1230.

The TWRA has a similar list of guidelines to follow as well:

  • Never feed or approach bears!
  • If a bear approaches you in the wild, it is probably trying to assess your presence.
  • If you see a black bear from a distance, alter your route of travel, return the way you came, or wait until it leaves the area.
  • Make your presence known by yelling and shouting at the bear in an attempt to scare it away.
  • If approached by a bear, stand your ground, raise your arms to appear larger, yell and throw rocks or sticks until it leaves the area.
  • When camping in bear country, keep all food stored in a vehicle and away from tents.
  • Never run from a black bear! This will often trigger its natural instinct to chase.
  • If a black bear attacks, fight back aggressively and do not play dead! Use pepper spray, sticks, rocks, or anything you can find to defend yourself. If cornered or threatened, bears may slap the ground, “pop” their jaws or “huff” as a warning. If you see these behaviors, you are too close! Slowly back away while facing the bear at all times.

The TWRA also lists advice for when you see a bear while in town. This advice is similar to what you should do when you see one in the wild.

  • Never feed or approach bears.
  • Do not store food, garbage or other recyclables in areas accessible to bears.
  • Do not feed birds or other wildlife where bears are active.
  • Feed outdoor pets a portion size they will completely consume during each meal and securely store pet foods.
  • Keep grills and smokers clean and stored in a secure area when not in use.
  • Talk to family and neighbors when bear activity is occurring in your area.
  • Bears will almost always find an escape route if they are left alone.
  • Shout and throw sticks or rocks in the vicinity of bear to encourage flight once an escape route has been established.
  • Females with cubs will often climb a tree to escape cover; never surround a tree holding any bear, especially a female with cubs!
  • Locate and remove the lure that caused the bear to come into your area. There is almost always a safe escape route when bears enter towns. Crowd control is the initial concern as the behavior of a cornered bear can be unpredictable. Immediately report to the TWRA or local police any sightings of bears within areas of human population centers.

Also remember to report any bear sightings to the TWRA as soon as you see one. You can do that by clicking this link.

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