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Bears. I know, I know, but I've been reading about the area

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Bears. I know, I know, but I've been reading about the area

I have lived in Wyoming and our family vacations often are the mountainous hiking variety. I always research the area we are going to so we do not do something foolish. In the reading I have done regarding the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the surrounding communities I have come across more bear warnings and reported problems at resort communities and neighborhoods, (as well as the park) more so than any other area I have researched. or visited....Alaska and Canada not included ;)

While looking to book a cabin, I have had several of the people at these agencies tell me of their own personal experiences with bears. The advice I was given is to be aware of your surroundings at all times. If you need to go out to your car after dark, turn on the porch light and use a flashlight. I am talking cabins that are NOT secluded and are part of a community. I was told that these native people have bears in their driveways every morning and often later evenings and see them when driving into work. I was told to be extra wary of a momma bear and her cubs and that bears are more frightened of me.

I have also read that this area is now more prone to problem or aggressive bears because it does not dispose of garbage properly and too many tourists feed the bears while in the park. Well, I am sure having 2 bears per square mile has something to do with it also.

I would like to visit with my family and if we do I will get bear spray and learn how to use it BEFORE going, but I would also like to know if what I am reading is exaggerated. There were deaths here and gruesome unprovoked attacks here not long ago.

Information would be appreciated. Thank you for your help.

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1. Re: Bears. I know, I know, but I've been reading about the area


We did see a momma bear and her cubs on the Laurel Falls trail last summer. She did not become too aggressive, but did kind of snarl at some hikers that were trying to get REAL close to her & her cubs. They were trying to take pictures, but I would NEVER have tried to get that close!! Also, the park did post a warning sign at the start of the trail that warned us that bears had be active of the trail recently. SO, we knew that the potential to see a bear was there.

Also, I read a great link on the smoky mountain national park website about bears & what to do if you come across a bear. I read it before we went on the waterfall trails last summer & found it helpful. I will provide the link in case you are interested in reading it yourself:


Hope this helps!

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2. Re: Bears. I know, I know, but I've been reading about the area

We've seen numerous bears on hikes. Even had one on the porch of the cabin in Wears Valley, but we've never had one get aggressive.

The first thing to do is to keep your distance. Everyone seems to want to get that great photo, and to them I suggest using the zoom to the best of your ability. When there are problems it can usually be attributed to people getting too close, a mother protecting her cubs, or people surprising the bear suddenly. People with dogs at a cabin should be especially careful. Bears do not like dogs, no matter what the size. There are only a couple of trails where leashed dogs are permitted.

I never carry bear spray, though I have considered it. If I returned to Yellowstone I would probably carry it, but in my thinking, the Black Bear is not as threatening as the Grizzly. I'd talk to a ranger or park employee at Sugarlands Visitor Center before arming myself, just to get the facts.

Bears in the developed areas of the Smokies seem to have set up their regular rounds of foraging due to people's trash habits. We do our best not to put any trash outside. We just take it to the rental office or wherever they tell us we can dispose of it on our way out in the mornings. Even if you don't have a bear problem, the raccoons will make a mess. The Bear will move on to the house/cabin up the road after he/she has checkout out your surroundings and found no food, but they will hang around for awhile if they have been fed by humans.

Lodging right next to the National Park will tend to have more bear activity, so when we bring the grandkids we stay closer to town in a cabin resort like StarrCrest Resort. But when we travel as a couple we try to stay right on the border of the park in Wears Valley.

But as you said, being aware of your surroundings is the best preventative measure. Also the more folks you hike with, the less chance of having a close encounter.

Happy Hiking :-)

Knoxville, Tennessee
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3. Re: Bears. I know, I know, but I've been reading about the area

Most of the attacks that have ocurred in the park area have been due to one of two things.

As the poster above indicated people feel the need to get close to these animals to get that special photo and I've seen many that will walk right up to them as if they were a squirrel. When the bear grunts or blows at you, you are beging told to get away from me and are far too close. Your actions are telling them you are a threat and he/she is attempting to avoid a fight by 'telling you to back away'. Just as in people, some animals don't feel like giving you that warning and simply attack when they feel you are a threat.

Secondly is the most common cause of attacks. Pets of any kind are prohibited on trails in the park and for good reason. Dogs (especially) and bears are naturally agressive towards each other and I've seen many many people ingore all signs and warnings and take 'spot' on the trails with them as if the rules doesn't apply to them. When the dog and a bear meet on the trail the dog will more often than not bark and attempt to chase the bear and he will attack in return. According to the Rangers, the owner will almost alwasy try to save 'spot' and end up being attached himself.

The last attack I read about in the park was a man driving through the park who came upon a bear jam. Traffic very slowly moved along as everyone rolled down their windows (or got out an walked) to get a good photo of a bear along the side of the road. As he passed 'spot' in the back seat saw the bear and dove out the window and began barking at the bear and snaping at him. The man stopped and got out trying to retrieve 'spot' and ended up getting mauled. People forget that the bear can't tell that the human is not ganging up on them with the dog and are only trying to defend itself.

I've reminded people hiking with pets that they are not allowed on the trails and gotten sacastic replies a few and ignored by the nearly all.

The cruelest thing is that with every attack the ignorant human may have to be treated for injuries or occasionally will die but the bear will always be hunted down and killed although they are simply defending themselves.

I've seen many on the trials in the park. Keep your distance and don't surprise a bear and you'll likely be fine.

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4. Re: Bears. I know, I know, but I've been reading about the area

We have been going to the Smokies for more than 15 years for our vacations. We have never seen a bear on the trails or at our cabins, but we have seen them while driving and that is a real treat. We always hike by ourselves and with our grandchildren too...anything from short hikes like Laurel Falls to all day hikes. I am always cautious but no more than I am when hiking in our "bear" counties in WV.

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5. Re: Bears. I know, I know, but I've been reading about the area

>> I was told to be extra wary of a momma bear and her cubs and that bears are more frightened of me. <<

Very true.

>> Well, I am sure having 2 bears per square mile has something to do with it also. <<

Nah, not really, I don't think. There is of course natural spillover with so much development right over the park boundary, but the real problem is with people not taking care of their food and trash properly, thus beginning the habituation process. And, the obvious notion that with so much development next to the park you've just got a higher mathematical chance of having problems. There have only been one or two bear related deaths in the national park since its founding, which is pretty impressive, especially given people's attitude toward bears has been in the past (and still in the present I guess). And, as mentioned, attacks are sometimes the fault of the person involved. Keep in mind these are black bears, not grizzlies; it's a completely different game.

I think the reason there's so much information out there on this issue is just to make sure that the millions of tourists that come streaming in learn how to treat bears properly. More information, more likelihood of them seeing, you know. And most of the tourists just come in on their cars and have little or no interaction with park publications or rangers, so it's important to get the information to them in whatever way possible. (The information is all common sense stuff: Do not feed, do not approach, don't stop your car in the middle of the road, be especially wary of mothers and cubs, and stow food properly.) So on the whole I think it has much more to do with the people than the bears.

The latest I heard on bear spray is that it's illegal in the national park. (Firearms, too.) I don't think it would do much good anyway; if you're close enough to use it, you're too close, and it would probably only frustrate the bear more. You're probably more likely to hurt yourself or someone else with it than the bear. Air horns I think are a more effective tool, but I imagine they're a pain to carry around and difficult to get to in the case of an encounter where you should be paying attention, not rummaging through a pack.

Best thing to do is to know what the park service wants you to know, and then not worry about it. I've hiked a good bit in the park and have only seen bears twice on the trail, both times at a distance. Remember to make noise when coming around bends of the trail so you don't startle a bear. Keep a very large distance between you an any bear you see, and be especially wary of mothers with cubs. If you do have an encounter, back away slowly, and make noise to scare the bear. Beyond that, it's up to the bear. Statistically your chance on an encounter is very low. I'd be much more concerned about heat stroke, hypothermia, and drowning than bears. Just based on signs I've seen I know dozens of people have died from falling around waterfalls and swimming where they shouldn't be.

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6. Re: Bears. I know, I know, but I've been reading about the area

Just did a little more research and it seems bear spray may be legal now, along with concealed weapons. Not sure at all, though.


The park web site gives it the okay, so I guess it's changed now.


I wouldn't bother with it, though. But that's your choice.

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7. Re: Bears. I know, I know, but I've been reading about the area

Packing heat in the National parks was legal as of March 1st.

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8. Re: Bears. I know, I know, but I've been reading about the area

Thanks. Good to have at least some people up to date around here. ;)

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9. Re: Bears. I know, I know, but I've been reading about the area

I have been following a website of a mother bear (Lily) that has given birth to (Hope) her new cub. Every day they have a new topic about bears that has been very interesting. They have a web cam on Lily and Hope in Ely, Mn. I hope this brings a little more light on the life of bears to all. I have really enjoyed watching Hope grow and how Lily responds.


Here was the topic today:

Is a fed bear a dead bear?

Is a fed bear a dead bear?

Update March 12, 2010 - 8:44 PM CST

The tougher the debate, the more we explore in the updates. In this case, the questioner assumed that if a bear is fed by someone it will generalize that all humans offer food and it will become a nuisance.

We’ve covered most of the questioner’s concerns as they apply to this study in previous updates, on bear.org, on bearstudy.org, and in the research paper “Does diversionary feeding create nuisance bears and jeopardize public safety?” Her questions are similar to our questions back in the early 1980’s before starting the present studies of feeding, habituation, and walking with wild bears. If those concerns applied, we would not still be doing the studies now a quarter century later.

However, she introduced a new topic that we’re happy to address because it’s a source of confusion for many biologists—the difference between feeding bears in campgrounds (and along roadsides) and feeding bears in rural communities. The confusion is many layered and involves additional confusion about habituation and about interpreting harmless nervous bluster. The questioner is right that feeding bears is not appropriate in campgrounds or along roadsides. Feeding in those situations leads bears into trouble.

The campground situation

Bears that receive food in campgrounds or as roadside panhandlers see crowds of people or streams of vehicles that change daily. They tend to generalize people or vehicles as harmless sources of food. Many campers enjoy seeing the bears and feeding them. Other campers are afraid. Many officials are afraid, too—afraid of liability if they don’t take tough action to get rid of any bear that shows bluster or that appears to have lost fear of people. Officials who lack close-up experience with bears may misinterpret harmless nervous bluster as serious threats and end up shooting such bears to protect public safety. They also shoot calm bears that ignore people and show no bluster, rationalizing that any bear that has lost some of its fear of people is likely to attack.

The questioner is right that bears in campgrounds can learn to approach people in general in areas where they expect to see people and where they have been fed. They also can learn to sit along stretches of road where motorists throw them food. However, nearly all of these bears, when approached back in the woods, run away.

Note that we never say ‘all’ or ‘never’ because bears have individual personalities and any given behavior falls in a bell-shaped curve with the odd bear being the exception out in one of the tails. It’s important not to over-generalize about bears. A problem is that many people, including many biologists, tend to generalize from worst-case scenarios using bears that are out in one of the tails. When this kind of thinking is applied to bear management it becomes management based on fear of liability rather than on solid science.

A bigger problem is that all too often there is no solid science when it comes to the bear-human interface. The bear-human interface is one of the most important areas of bear management and one of the least studied areas of bear biology. Many biologists think such studies are unnecessary because they think they already know the answers. And preconceived notions tend to rely on selective memory rather than on a solid data base that can produce truly scientific conclusions. The passion behind preconceived notions is no less adamant than in politics and religion.

Is a fed bear a dead bear?

Killings of bears in campgrounds led to the expression “A fed bear is a dead bear.” It was made up by a couple campground managers who said it was the best way they could urge campers to keep a clean camp and refrain from feeding bears. The slogan is thoughtlessly applied to rural communities and has become a mindless mantra for bear management across the continent. There is no science behind it. It rightly recognizes that food can lead bears into trouble in campgrounds. However, it fails to recognize that food can also lead bears out of trouble in certain situations as we are finding in our study area and in the previous study area described in “Does diversionary feeding create nuisance bears and jeopardize public safety?”

Rural communities

In the rural community we are studying, a dozen or so households have been feeding bears for over 40 years. The bears become accustomed (habituated) to seeing and trusting people in certain locations or situations. They learn what to expect from each landowner who feeds them.

We have already discussed that these bears do not walk up to hunters and that they survive hunting seasons at a higher rate than other bears. Do they, as the questioner asserts, approach people wherever they see them? We have already discussed that to an extent but let’s give some examples.

Hunters tell us that well-fed bears that feed in people’s yards are actually more cautious when approaching hunters’ baits than are ‘hungry’ other bears. This could further explain the higher survival of research bears over other bears. The caution these well-fed bears show is probably more in regard to other bears that visit the hunters’ baits than about the hunter sitting quietly high in a tree wearing camouflage and covered with a scent to mask his human odor.

There are many stories of bears we accompany in the woods fleeing at the sight of a distant hiker. In fact, we ourselves find we cannot approach the bears upwind without speaking and letting them know it’s us.

We remember a couple skeptical wildlife managers who believed the same as the questioner—that the bears would likely approach people for food out in the woods. A 15-year-old bear that had visited feeding stations in the study area for most of her life was bedded in a valley nearby. She was wearing a radio-collar, so we gave the telemetry receiver and directional antenna to them to try to approach her. An hour later, they came back with a story of how they had quietly tried to join the bear, following her signal in big circles in the valley as the bear stayed ahead of them until she finally lined out over a hill and left. They never saw her.

Perhaps the best example comes from an elderly couple who have walked forest trails nearly daily during the entire study. Until the husband died a year ago, they walked 3-5 miles each day in the heart of the study area. 105 bears were documented using feeding stations in the study area during that time. We asked them how many bear problems they had. The wife said they only saw one bear in the woods in all that time and it posed no problem.

Similarly, bears are fed at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary about 75 miles away. Over 80 different wild bears visit there each year and become thoroughly accustomed to seeing people in the bear-feeding area. In the early days, until the mid 1990’s, there were no rules. People could walk unsupervised among dozens of bears that sought food from the people. For over 20 years, people were saying the place was an accident waiting to happen. During that period, Lynn took many pictures of toddlers wandering among 500-pound bears, steadying themselves with a hand on a bear or reaching up to a bear’s mouth to offer it a doughnut. The bears were thoroughly used to getting food from people. Contrary to the questioner’s assertion, most of these bears were impossible to approach just a hundred yards back in the woods. They expected to see people in the feeding area. A person in the woods was a threat. However, different bears have different personalities. Some are quicker than others to learn to accept people in new situations. Lynn persisted in gaining the trust of a few of them back in the woods. The two biggest, 876-pound Duffy and 758-pound Brownie, turned out to be the most confident and the quickest to trust Lynn walking with them. Both had calm, gentle, personalities. Most of the others slipped away like any wild bear when Lynn tried to approach.

Little scientific work has been published on habituation in bears. The word has been used in many publications, often incorrectly, but the only scientific paper we know of is the one by Steve Herrero, Tom Smith, Terry DeBruyn, Kerry Gunther, and Colleen Matt (2005) entitled “From the field: brown bear habituation to people—safety, risks, and benefits.” It was published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin 33(1):362-373. It showed that habituated brown bears were less likely to attack people on a “per encounter” basis but did not go into how location-specific and situation-specific habituation is. As is usual where there is a dearth of science, there has been a lot of speculation about habituation and the effects of feeding bears and some of the speculation has formed the basis of bear management—to the detriment to bears. There is a need for clear scientific thinking in most areas of the bear-human interface.

We thank you again for your contributions and help.

—Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield, Biologists, North American Bear Center

10. Re: Bears. I know, I know, but I've been reading about the area

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