ONEIDA, Tenn. — From bald eagles to majestic bull elk, there is more magnificent wildlife to be found across the northern Cumberland Plateau than you can shake a stick at. They’re all worth watching — from an eagle feasting on fish at a stream’s edge in the winter to the sound of an elk’s bugle on a crisp October morning. But one type of wildlife that has visitors to our neck of the woods especially excited is the black bear.
Black bears are found throughout the northern Cumberland Plateau region, but they’re especially prolific in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. To put the Big South Fork’s bear population into perspective, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its bears, where an estimated 1,500 of the critters roam 521,000 acres. That’s a population density of one bear per every 347 acres. In the Big South Fork, it is estimated that 300 black bears roam 125,000 acres — or one bear per every 416 acres.
The main difference between the black bears in the Smokies and the black bears in BSF is that the black bears here on the Cumberland Plateau have not yet accustomed themselves to free handouts from people — and we want to keep it that way!
“You’ll be happy to know that we have nice bears in the Big South Fork,” says Shane Kinsey, the park’s bear biologist.
And that’s no knock against the Smokies. It’s just that years of interaction with humans in the Smokies have left bears there associating humans with food. That leads to problems. Black bears who associate humans with a free meal become nuisance bears — and, sometimes, dangerous bears.
In the Big South Fork, there have been no reported cases of aggressive black bears. That does not mean it can’t happen or won’t happen; by their very nature, bears should be enjoyed from a safe distance and with a healthy dose of respect. The Big South Fork NRRA strictly enforces safe bear practices. When camping in the park’s campgrounds — like Bandy Creek or Station Camp Horse Camp — campers are required to keep all food, coolers and items used for cooking food inside hard-sided vehicles or bear-safe storage lockers. In the backcountry, campers are required to also practice safe food storage techniques — such as suspending their food sack from a tree with a rope. Violating those rules can — and sometimes do — result in fines.
“If a bear smells something different, it wants to sample it,” Kinsey says. “And a bear can smell 15 times better than a bloodhound. If a cooler is empty, it can still smell a Yahoo that busted in there three years ago.”
The problem is that once bears associate humans with food, they lose their instinctive fear of humans — the need to eat overwhelms the animal’s caution.
“Once a bear goes into a tent or into a vehicle or attacks a human, he’s euthanized,” Kelsey said. “Feeding a bear is a death sentence for that bear.”
That has not happened in the Big South Fork, and it’s the job of Kelsey and the park’s law enforcement to make sure it doesn’t.
With that in mind, where can you find bears in the BSF? There’s no guaranteed place to see them, but they can be randomly seen just about anywhere throughout the park.
“This year, I’ve seen bears deep in the Big South Fork backcountry, along No Business Creek, and I’ve seen bears while driving along S.R. 297,” says Ben Garrett, a member of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce’s Tourism Committee and frequent BSF visitor. “To be honest, I don’t go into the Big South Fork now without expecting to see a bear. That doesn’t mean I always see one, or that I even see one most of the time, but they’re widespread throughout the park.”
Garrett added that the highest concentration of bears is on the northwest side of the park — north of Bandy Creek Campground and west of the Big South Fork River. In general, the areas between Station Camp Creek and No Business Creek — hard-to-access backcountry — are where the bears can most easily be found.
“If I were wanting to see a bear from my vehicle, I would drive the gravel roads that are shared-use roads between motor vehicles and other usage groups,” Garrett said. “Duncan Hollow Road, Bandy Creek Loop Road, Gar Blevins Road — those are all good options close to Bandy Creek. On the northwest side, Divide Road and any of the roads branching off it are good options.”
There have been reported bear sightings this summer along the Grand Gap Loop Trail, the John Muir Trail and the Oscar Blevins Farm Loop Trail close to Bandy Creek.
The best way to find bears is to look for their food source. Berries are currently ripe, and black bears are suckers for a good blackberry patch or blueberry bush. Huckleberries also grow in abundance in the BSF. A bit later in the summer, fruits like apple will begin to ripen, and that is where bears can be found.
Contrary to popular myth, bears do not truly hibernate — that is, they don’t go into their den when winter arrives and stay put until spring rolls around. But they do spend most of the cold weather months in a state of low activity. It isn’t unheard of to see a bear wandering in the Big South Fork during the months of December, January or February, but for the most part, bear sightings drop dramatically in November and do not begin to increase again until spring brings warmer weather to the region.
If you do encounter bears in the backcountry, Kinsey says the best thing to do is simply give them a wide berth. BSF bears will usually run at the first glimpse — or whiff — of a human. If they don’t, it’s important to understand why. The bear could be a sow with cubs nearby, or you may have accidentally interrupted its meal. Either one can make a bear grumpy.
“If you see a bear in a blackberry patch that is armpit-deep with ripe blackberries, don’t try to chase it out,” Kinsey says. “Just let it be a bear. It’ll do what bears do: fill up on blackberries, then lay down and take a nap, or climb a tree and take a nap.”
Kinsey says it’s also important to understand a bear’s behavior. Many people mistake a curious bear for a threatening bear. A bear that stands on its hind legs is probably not preparing to attack. It’s much more likely that the bear is attempting to make itself appear larger, a common intimidation technique, or even just rising above the forest’s undergrowth so he can get a better look at you.
Bears that are reluctant to leave an area — due to cubs, food, or because they feel cornered — may also show bluster by pouncing towards a person, slapping the ground and blowing, a guttural sound made with the mouth that can sometimes sound like a growl.
Of course, those displays mean the bear feels threatened or scared and wants more space . . . and humans should give it to them. But it does not mean the bear is about to attack.
In the event that a bear does act aggressive, it is important to not run — you can’t outrun a black bear, anyway, and they can climb trees. Instead, stand your ground, be loud and throw objects — such as sticks and rocks — at the bear. Only as a last resort should you fall into the ground in a protective stance and shield your face and neck.
Pictured: A black bear sow and her cub in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, near Station Camp. (Photo: Melissa Capps, Pixel Star Photography.)