East Tennessee is home to a variety of wildlife. However, one species is more popular and treasured above all the rest. The Black Bear. The majority of black bears in this region live in and around the Cherokee National Forest and The Great Smoky Mountain National Park. With the creation of a world recognized national forest and park in the 1930’s, the black bear population has grown steadily. Because of the protection these lands provide, the East Tennessee Mountains are alive with black bears. This is their roaming ground and, although it's rather large, it's still not what they once had. Because of our growing population and economic growth, black bears have lost valuable habitat and food sources. Once, long ago, black bears were found throughout much of northern America.
With the loss of needed, safe food sources and habitats, bears and humans alike were affected. As the habitat's lost, the bear population will decrease at the same rate. This also means that bears are now roaming not only the park, but surrounding communities as well in their search of food. These bears can sometimes become erratic and dangerous when they come upon human food. Inevitably, someone's going to ignore the laws and leave food for the bears which it's illegal to do so. Unfortunately, this means the bear will come back again and again looking for more food. When none's available, they'll pilfer and destroy things they normally wouldn’t. In 2012, the TWRA released a count of the black bear population in Tennessee. Their estimates were between 3,500 and 5,000 bears. This includes the bears found in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is about 1,800. So most are found on public lands. This rate is steadily climbing with access to safe food and habitats. Most people don’t seem to realize or understand that bears have a rather long life span. For wild bears, a normal life expectancy can be twelve to fifteen years. For black bears that have been ‘touched’ by the human population, this number is drastically reduced. Black bears that are fed by people or wander into human communities searching for food are expected to live only six to seven years. This is nearly half the life span of wild bears that are never exposed to humans and human food sources.
Due to this, we now have strict policies in place to protect wild bear populations. The government has created bear sanctuaries, national forests, and national parks to provide safe, protected habitat to help this species survive. The government has also passed laws that protect adult female black bears from being hunted and killed. These are properly enforced by our Fish and Wildlife agencies and employees. All of the bears that are found in East Tennessee are black bears, but they can also be found in a brown or even a reddish brown color in other parts of the country. They also vary in size and weight according to the bears gender. Male bears are larger and can weigh as much as two hundred and fifty pounds. Females are much smaller and weigh only one to two hundred pounds. This weight can raise to up to six hundred pounds for a healthy bears at the end of the summer months. There are records of bears this size in East Tennessee parks. Black bears can be up to six feet from front to end, and up to three feet tall from the ground to their shoulder. That's the same size as a very tall human. Bears also have the shared trait if colored vision. They can climb trees, swim, and their sense of smell is incredible. Bears are very fast as well, being able to run up to 30 miles per hour.
Black bears have similar eating habits to people as they are omnivorous, eating both plants and animals. However, they mainly eat a diet of nuts and berries. If they need protein, they will eat insects, or animals that are already deceased. In the spring and summer, you can often find these bears foraging for food in the cool hours of morning and evening. These are also the months that bears mate. Unlike most species, black bears do not mate for life. They will have multiple mates throughout mating season and their life span.
As it cools into fall and winter, black bears will start to hunt for a safe den for the longer, colder months of the year. Black bears do not truly hibernate, they generally pass the colder weather sleeping longer periods of time. If the weather is warm enough or they have been disturbed in some way, they will emerge from their dens . For most, this is usually a hollow tree stump, high up in a hollow tree, or any place that provides proper shelter from the elements. In late January or the early weeks of February, mother bears give birth, having up to four tiny cubs. Each cub will be only about 8 ounces at birth. As the cubs grow, they will learn how to survive on their own from their mother. At eighteen months, they will leave their mother and start their own life on their own. They will also be on their own when their mother mates again, whichever happens first.
When you enter the woods in East Tennessee during the summer, it is often expected that there are black bears. Even if you don’t see them, they are there. It is important to ensure that you know the proper way to handle a bear encounter. You can research information on line, but park rangers or other employees can offer the proper ways to ensure that not only you, but the bear as well, remain safe. East Tennessee has the largest population of black bears, so you are sure likely to see at least one while there, even if from a distance.