National Parks Journal: Great Smoky Mountains Black Bears are Emerging from Hibernation

by Jon D. B.
Photo credit: Getty Images

As spring rolls in, the black bears of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) are returning to the landscape after winter’s long hibernation. Be prepared for a safe visit to, or season spent living within, bear country courtesy of GRSM’s lead wildlife biologist, Bill Stiver.

Black bears can seem ever-present in the Smokies. This past winter, GRSM’s Bill Stiver received a call concerning a black bear “out and sunning himself” while the majority were hibernating. “This isn’t uncommon,” he says, “But it isn’t the norm, either. He went back into his den before long, as most bears won’t travel far during hibernation months. And as the peak times of year approach, we really want to educate people on how to prevent human-bear conflicts,” he offers for Outsider’s National Parks Journal.

As the park’s lead wildlife biologist (and over three decades with the most visited national park in the world), Bill has seen it all when it comes to American black bears. And as spring rolls in, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s most iconic animal is returning to their landscape at large – making now the perfect time to brush up on being BearWise.

GRSM Black Bears Emerging in March: What To Know

“Our bears, particularly male bears, will start coming out of their dens in March,” Bill begins of this time of year. “And one of the issues we see as spring comes, particularly for homeowners close to the park, is the bears will start hitting bird feeders in March. Then, the females with cubs will start emerging in April.”

Thankfully, “We don’t typically have many bear-human conflicts early in the spring,” he adds. “But certainly by mid-to-late May it really starts to escalate.”

Times of Year to be Extra Vigilant and BearWise in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

“June and early-to-mid August are the two real big peaks in human-bear conflicts” for the greater GRSM area, Bill explains. “By late June, early July it kind of fades off.”

“People need to really be on their toes in June. June is our most challenging moth of the year by far,” he emphasizes. “We take a deep breath at the end of that month.”

Then, “For a little bit in July, conflicts will actually decrease because summer foods, like ripened berries, become available and the bears’ focus switches to mating season. Their mating season lasts through July and August.”

Peak Times for Human-Bear Conflict in GRSM

  • March: Bears emerge from their dens and are in constant search of food after a long hibernation
  • June: Bears are out and very actively foraging during early-to-mid June’s summer boom. This is the peak season for human-bear conflicts within GRSM. “June is our most challenging month of the year,” Bill emphasizes.
  • August: Early-to-mid August is another big peak for human-bear conflicts within the park. This is between summer and fall food sources for bears, sending them into a foraging overdrive.
  • October-November: If fall acorn crops are poor, bears will enter another overdrive as hyperphagia kicks in and they attempt to fatten up for hibernation

“Conflicts also peak in August as summer food sources start to fade out, and the bears’ fall foods – like acorns – aren’t available yet,” Bill continues. This lack of natural food hosts a “huge spike” in sightings and encounters as black bears begin foraging for any available foods. Unfortunately for us humans (and especially black bears), the easiest food sources are products of humanity: trash cans, dumpsters, campgrounds, backpacks, picnic areas, and anything around houses from bird feeders to pet foods. Anything with a strong scent not stored in a bear-proof location can fall prey to the notoriously resourceful black bear.

Acorns are a big indicator for black bear activity and human-bear conflicts. Bill and his GRSM team refer to the bears’ all-out fall foraging of acorns as the “Fall Shuffle” as bears take to lowlands to seek out (hopefully) bountiful acorn crops. “Assuming we have a good acorn crop in a year, all of those conflicts go away by mid-September,” Bill says. “If the acorn crop is poor, then it’ll pick back up in October and November.”

The Remarkable Intelligence of American Black Bears

Black bears are known for their curiosity, and this curiosity is, in some ways, a biproduct of their remarkable intelligence and resourcefulness. If it’s smelly and a bear can get to it, they’ll do just about anything to have a go. Take a good look at the ‘bear-proof’ trash cans and dumpsters within Great Smoky Mountains National Park next time you visit and you’ll see first-hand what’s required to keep a black bear out of a receptacle. Instead of cans, bins, or dumpsters, GRSM’s receptacles are more or less giant steel vaults with trick handles.

An American black bear (ursus americanus) sits in a dumpster with a baggie stick in its mouth while looking for food. With winter approaching, he needs to put on weight quickly so he can hibernate. Photo Credit: Getty Images archives.

Typical dumpsters, however, are wildly inept at keeping black bears from habituating to human food sources (see above). Our vehicles are, too, as each year hosts half-a-dozen or more car break-ins by bears wherever black bears are found.

Thankfully, this can be prevented by locking your vehicle. Which, let’s be honest, should happen whenever your vehicle isn’t in use. Especially in bear country.

So if you’re planning a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there’s a few key things you can do to stay BearWise as black bears emerge from hibernation:

  • Stay Alert & Stay Together: Pay attention to your surroundings and stay together. Walk, hike, jog, or cycle with others when possible. Keep kids within sight and close by. Leave earbuds at home and make noise periodically so bears can avoid you.
  • Leave No Trash or Food Scraps: Double bag your food when hiking and pack out all food and trash. Don’t burn food scraps or trash in your fire ring or grill. Leaving scraps, wrappers, or even “harmless” items like apple cores teaches bears to associate trails and campsites with food.
  • Keep Dogs Leashed: Letting dogs chase or bark at bears is asking for trouble; don’t force a bear to defend itself. Keep your dogs leashed at all times or leave them at home.
  • Camp Safety: Set up camp away from dense cover and natural food sources. Cook as far from your tent as possible. Do not store food, trash, clothes worn when cooking, or toiletries in your tent. Store in approved bear-resistant containers OR out of sight in a locked vehicle OR suspended at least 10 feet above the ground and 10 feet from any part of the tree.
  • Carry Bear Spray, Know How To Use It: Bear spray is proven to be the easiest and most effective way to deter a bear that threatens you. It doesn’t work like bug repellent, so never spray your tent, campsite or belongings.
  • *Know What To Do If You See a Bear: See detailed breakdown here*

And if you’re a local resident, follow BearWise’s Six At-Home Basics:

  • Never Feed or Approach Bears: Intentionally feeding bears or allowing them to find anything that smells or tastes like food teaches bears to approach homes and people looking for more. Bears will defend themselves if a person gets too close, so don’t risk your safety and theirs!
  • Secure Food, Garbage, and Recycling: Food and food odors attract bears, so don’t reward them with easily available food, liquids or garbage.
  • Remove Bird Feeders when Bears are Active: Birdseed and grains have lots of calories, so they’re very attractive to bears. Removing feeders is the best way to avoid creating conflicts with bears.
  • Never Leave Pet Food Outdoors: Feed pets indoors when possible. If you must feed pets outside, feed in single portions and remove food and bowls after feeding. Store pet food where bears can’t see or smell it.
  • Clean & Store Grills: Clean grills after each use and make sure that all grease, fat and food particles are removed. Store clean grills and smokers in a secure area that keeps bears out.
  • Alert Neighbors to Bear Activity: See bears in the area or evidence of bear activity? Tell your neighbors and share info on how to avoid bear conflicts.

For more on how to ‘Recreate Responsibly’ in GRSM and how it overlaps with BearWise safety, check out these National Parks Journal offerings next: