Danger Ahead: 12 Do’s and Don’ts for Meeting Bears on the Trail

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Mmmm, there is nothing better than a steaming berry cobbler, fresh from the oven of your Gatlinburg rental cabin. Others would agree with you, including our local black bears, who are currently munching their way through the ripe summer berry season in the park. Recent local media have reported that two national park trails are currently closed due to heightened bear activity: Twin Creeks Trail and the Noah Bud Ogle Cabin and Nature Trail. Though highly unlikely to be attacked by a black bear, it’s a prudent idea to make sure you know what to do, should you meet one (or a family of them) while exploring in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Do this:
1. Watch for fresh tracks and scat (animal droppings) while you hike. Remember that you are in their neighborhood, and in this season, very likely passing through their dining area. Making regular conversation, singing, and carrying a bear bell (essentially a free hanging jingle bell) decreases the likelihood that you will surprise an animal, and gives them the opportunity to naturally avoid you and your party.
2. Should you actually encounter a bear, move calmly and slowly. Back away without turning your back and without making direct eye contact.
3. Look bigger. Wave your arms calmly or grab a stick to wave to increase your visual size. Also place children on your shoulders to increase your height and their safety.
4. Leash your pet. Better yet, leave them home. A happy Labrador, for example, could make the whole situation needlessly volatile. Why risk it?
5. Turn up the volume, if the bear appears curious (standing on hind legs), or does not retreat. Use your voice to sing or yell. Bang items together or clap.
6. Should the extremely rare attack occur, fight back furiously and loudly, tantrum-style, hitting with whatever you can grab. Know that it will not likely ever come to this, if you don’t get too close. Should you have a bear encounter, please do report it to park services, so it can be recorded and the animal behavior closely tracked.
Whatever you do, don’t do these:
1. Do not run! Prey runs away from its predator. This is not the message you want to send the bear. Though you may want to flail, scream, and retreat, resist the urge.
2. Do not feed the bears. Never. Not even for the world’s best photo opportunity. Walking into a natural dining room is one thing, but establishing yourself as a food source in the mind of the bear endangers both you and all other humans to follow, as the bear develops a palate for people food. A young bear is taught by its mother to avoid humans naturally. It is appetite and needless opportunity for human food that derails innate behavior.
3. Do not smell like food or something else interesting. Avoid colognes, perfumes, or use of scented body products. Pack out your trash and any leftover scraps, preferably in sealed plastic, so as not to be viewed as a roving snack opportunity.
4. Do not show fear or aggression. Don’t play dead (that’s for grizzlies-none here). It is also unwise to stare them down: direct eye contact can be perceived as aggression on your part.
5. Do not climb a tree. You cannot out climb or outrun a black bear. They can quickly ascend to a treetop and can keep pace with a horse. Can you?
6. Do not go solo. Groups of three or more people are best for safety while hiking in the park.
We want your hiking experience to be both happy and healthy. It is perfectly acceptable to enjoy watching black bears from a safe distance. Federal regulations state that “willfully approaching within 150 feet, or any distance that disturbs bear or elk, is prohibited. Violators are subject to imprisonment up to 6 months and/or fines up to $5,000. It’s just not worth it. Should you desire a wonderful memento of the bears in our park, view my blog from May 28, 2014. Two great choices for photos or paintings of local bears are mentioned, both much better and far safer than any selfie attempt.
Education is also never a bad thing. For more tips and details, check out this video made in conjunction with the National Park Service:

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