Many Species Make Their Home in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
You may see more wildlife than people in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At last count, there were 66 types of mammals, including black bears and foxes; 250 bird species; and more than 30 kinds of salamanders. Elk used to roam the southern Appalachians but by 1900 were almost extinct because of hunting and lost habitat. Twenty-five were brought to the park in 2001; the herd now numbers about 90. I saw 45 of them in February -- and only three people.
The National Park Service says many people come to see black bears, which come out of hibernation in April.
"First, it's the males, then the females, then the females with cubs," says Kim Delozier, the park's supervisory wildlife biologist. There are about 1,500 black bears, "about two per square mile," he says.
Delozier says 305 bear incidents were reported last year, mostly about their being nuisances, such as going after food that campers didn't store inside metal lockers. But sometimes, people are nuisances. "It's a common problem, people approaching bears from the roadside," Delozier says. "People want to get as close as they can."
Bears are more common in backcountry areas of the park than along roads, and attacks are rare.
Bears are cute and cuddly only when stuffed. Kent Cave, curator for the park's interpretive exhibits, says toy bears sold in Sugarlands Visitor Center's store come with observe-but-avoid instructions. The center's natural history museum, recently renovated with a $50,000 private donation, provides a taxidermied bear. If faux bear will suffice, you have plenty of choices in surrounding communities. The stretch of downtown Cherokee, N.C., leading to the park's southern entrance is lined with life-size painted bears as well as stores selling bear-theme items, including bear-urine (or so it's claimed) candles. This area is part of the Qualla Boundary, more commonly known as the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Roaming covered wooden sidewalks that evoke TV-western frontier towns are Indian-costumed people who, for a fee, will entertain you with bear stories.
Gatlinburg, Tenn., the northern gateway, looks like an Alpine town, with timbered buildings and an aerial tram. You can pose near carved bears in Mountain Mall. At Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, I found life-size wooden bears and smaller ones in concrete. Tim Weberding, a second-generation woodcarver, showed me the bear on the ornament he created to celebrate the park's 75th anniversary. (It sells for $9.99.)
But if you really must see a live bear before leaving the Smokies, the Ober Gatlinburg resort has a bear habitat, where for $6 you are guaranteed a glimpse when they're not hibernating.