Chimney Tops, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Bear Country

This is the final installment in a series by White River Steward Grace van Kan. In part 3, Grace toured the Appalachian Bear Rescue facility. The story concludes…

Within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are an estimated 2,000 to 2,400 bears, and potentially 14,000 in North Carolina alone. They persistently return to their natal range: Appalachian Bear Rescue curators conducted research showing that bears travel outside of the home range for food, but always return. Additionally, bears that are removed from their home range will find their way back, even from out of state!

One study found that almost all bears in the park — and participating in the study — leave at some point, most likely in search of food, and return within a matter of weeks. Rangers in the park have taken to moving male bears away from the park during elk calving season. The bears are moved past the mountains, but within a matter of weeks they find their way back into the park, where the valley offers a buffet of elk calves.

Elk photo by Taylor Tatlock

Bears do not intend to interact with humans and will give warning signs that they are nervous before a provoked attack: chopping jaws, huffing and blowing, stamping front legs, executing bluff charges, and even yawning. These are all signs that a bear might give you to back off.

As for “our” bears, our group spotted the sow and her yearlings two more days, and the boar just one more day. The bears may have returned to this spot among cabins so frequently because they have been rewarded with human food or the promise of tasty garbage. Signs throughout the area remind human travelers that “a fed bear is a dead bear.”

Bears that are habituated to human interactions, such as being fed, are more likely to enter campsites and towns or approach cars and people. This familiarity can have harmful effects to the occasional reckless human, and can result in euthanization of a persistent bear.

Other threats that bears face from humans are cars, guns, chemicals, and trash. One of ABR’s recent rescued bears had his head stuck in a jar for days. When you are in bear country, remember to follow the rules, gives bears distance, use proper bear-safe containers, and please, do NOT feed the bears!

Note: Formerly an endangered species, black bears are now categorized as a species of least concern. The most recent confirmed sighting of a black bear in Indiana was 2021. Find out more about Grace’s Great Smoky Mountains studies in our summer newsmagazine story, “River Deep, Mountain High.”

Grace van Kan

White River Steward

Grace grew up roaming the woods, creeks and wetlands around the Chesapeake Bay watershed. From an early trout-raising project to a “gap year” spent restoring coral reefs in Thailand, her interest in aquatic conservation has only grown. Now she cares for several riverine nature preserves as CILTI’s White River Steward.