Focus On... the Wild(life) Side of the Smokies

An orphaned bear cub from the Smokies.

This orphaned bear cub from the Smokies gets another chance with a foster bear at Virginia Tech.

NPS photo.

The black bear is the symbol of the Smokies,” says wildlife biologist Bill Stiver. Looking around Gatlinburg, Tennessee and other towns that border the national park, this seems undeniable. From black bear t-shirts to carved bear-shaped logs, representations of this charismatic bear are everywhere. In the past, many people expected to find the same bear in the park that they’d seen in the stores: a grinning, shaggy, friendly animal. Visitors came to the Smokies—and other national parks, from Yellowstone to Yosemite— not only to see wildlife, but to get up close and feed them. This resulted in some great photos, but it also led to hundreds of conflicts resulting in the death of many bears and injuries to people.

The current bear population estimate—1,500 to 1,600 bears—is the largest ever recorded here, yet you may be less likely to glimpse one than ever before. The reason is that more bears are wild. Over the years, the number of “nuisance bears,” (animals that bother or are aggressive toward humans) has dropped significantly. Thoughtful and successful bear management from wildlife staff—along with help from park maintenance, law enforcement, resource education, and visitors like you—has made the co-existence of humans and bears possible.

In addition to better management, we also know much more about the black bears themselves, due in large part to professors such as Dr. Mike Pelton (now retired) and Dr. Frank van Manen, and many graduate researchers at the University of Tennessee. These researchers have conducted bear population—and more recently, genetic—studies in the Smokies since 1968.

Return to Dispatches from the Field: Issue 3 main page to link to each of these project descriptions.

Do you know how to keep your picnic or pack safe from bears in the Park? Check this list of tips before you go hiking or camping.

Did You Know?