How to Safely View Wildlife

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Date: November 14, 2013
Contact: Public Affairs Office, (865) 436-1207

Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials remind park visitors to exercise caution as they view and photograph wildlife to best protect both the animals and themselves. Park Rangers have recently received numerous reports of increased interactions between visitors and wildlife such as bears, white-tailed deer, and elk.

Park Rangers encourage visitors to use binoculars, spotting scopes, or cameras with telephoto lenses to best enjoy wildlife. Feeding, touching, disturbing, and willfully approaching wildlife within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces wildlife, are illegal in the park. If approached by wildlife, visitors should slowly back away to put distance between the animal and themselves creating space for the animal to pass. Often animals simply need adequate space to cross a trail, road, or public area as they travel through the park in search of forage and cover.

“Wild animals typically avoid visitor interaction unless they become food conditioned,” said Park Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver. “If an animal starts approaching and threatening human safety, we have several proactive steps we take to effectively manage the situation that bests protects the animal and the public. However, if the negative behavior escalates, our options in dealing with the animal quickly become limited.”

Biologists recently removed the antlers of a large bull elk that routinely spends time in high use, public areas in fields adjacent to the Oconluftee Visitor Center, Mountain Farm Museum, and the Oconaluftee River Trail. Dominant bull elk typically defend their territory during the fall breeding season, known as the rut, by charging and sparring with competitors. Unfortunately, this 800-pound elk charged several visitors posing significant to public safety. Now that the rut is essentially over, the elk’s aggressive behavior should lessen and by removing the elk’s antlers which are annually shed, biologists further reduced the risk for harm to visitors.

Park officials have taken numerous steps over the past several years to prevent nuisance wildlife behavior by improving the design of bear-proof garbage cans and sanitation schedules, and promoting public awareness in our visitor centers and through our website and social media. The Park also created several volunteer programs including the Elk Bugle Corp and Oconaluftee Field Rovers, who provide on-site, timely information to park visitors so they may safely view wildlife. As a result of these efforts, wildlife biologists have relocated far fewer bears than in the 1980s and managed fewer nuisance animals.

For more information on how to safely view wildlife, please visit the park’s website at

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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