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Black Bears: The Mascot of Appalachia

Jason and I have a borderline obsession with scouting out black bears. Many evenings we’ll head out after dinner to try to spot some wandering around and we’ve gotten lucky quite a few times. The American black bear is the world’s most common species of bears and is also the most widely distributed on the continent. With that being said, you would think we wouldn’t be as fascinated with them as we all seem to be. They’re neat little creatures and, although they’re the most common, it is still not too often we come across them. So, Jason and I have found a place that is almost like Heaven on earth, not only for its scenery, but for the ability to see bears in their natural habitat…Cades Cove. During our brief time stalking black bears in the Smokies we have actually learned things about them that we didn’t know before, some of that knowledge came from witnessing the behavior and the other came from looking up information out of curiosity. They fascinate us with their built-in instincts and the way they nurture and teach their young. We mentioned in one of our video postings of the bears that we have learned some things we didn't previously know and a few people asked us what those thing were. There's a lot we take away from being outdoors and through Jason's photography. It oftentimes strikes up curiosity and a deeper love of our Appalachia.

The Appalachian Mountains have a steady presence of black bears, but Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more per square mile than anywhere else in the United States. That is a vast improvement from only one-hundred total when the park was created back in 1934. They flourish in the Smokies due to the protection they’re given from humans as well as all the greenery the park has to offer them. There are more than five-thousand species of plants and trees in the Smokies with trees covering 95% of the entire park which helps aid in the black bear population. Jason and I just recently learned how important trees are to black bears. Although we knew they would sometimes climb up trees to escape predators, we didn't realize just how much time they spent up in tree tops.

Recently, when we were going through Cades Cove we noticed a couple of photographers who were stopped off at a particular spot and decided to go see what they spotted. We were scanning the landscape after they simply whispered to us, "bears," but neither one of us saw what they saw. Just a few seconds later one of the guys pointed up and it was after our eyes scanned almost the entire height of the tree that we saw two bears in some branches at the very top! Both of us sat there for a bit, mesmerized as to how in the world two good size bears were able to maneuver their way around those branches without breaking them. One of the photographers we spoke to told us he and his wife had been following the mother and daughter, who were up in the tree, since the mama had her cubs. This cub was the last who was still hanging around mom, but mom allowed it since her daughter was still a little too small to be out on her own. We spoke to the photographer and his wife for a bit and they informed us just how much time bears spend in trees. They often find a hallowed out tree for hibernating in the winter, they sleep up in the trees a good bit and they're able to find lots and lots of acorns they can munch on to help with their fat storage for winter. That was exactly what we were witnessing these two bears doing; they were going through every branch they could to find acorns. It was an amazing sight and we learned that we weren't always looking in the right direction when trying to find bears. Doesn't it make you wonder if you've ever been hiking and walked right under a bear, or walked past a hallowed out tree that denned a mama with her cubs in the winter?

Jason and I both grew up hearing that bears don't really hibernate here in the South, but we have learned that is not true. Black bears hibernate all across North America including the South, the only difference they have from that of their northern counterparts is that they spend a little less time doing so. Up north, black bears may hibernate for as long as eight months, whereas bears in the southern region only do so for about five months. Also, according to a North Carolina biologist who studies black bears in the state, they may enter their dens anywhere from November to January and leave them as early as February or as late as April. This can help explain why many people don't believe they hibernate because they have been seen throughout the year. Their hibernation process is amazing and they prepare for it for a long while before actually entering their den.

The biologists who work in the Smokies call the bears preparation for hibernation, "The Fall Shuffle." The bears eat lots of fruit in the summer months, but once they begin getting ready to sleep they begin to stock up on a lot of nuts, especially acorns. A bear can gain up to five pounds a day from gorging on acorns! All this fat is vital for their survival, especially for mama bears who will be nursing her young a rich, fatty milk. A bear can lose up to one-third of its weight during the winter months, too, so it is important for them to gain as much as possible before going in. The park offers them a wide variety of food throughout spring, summer and fall and they definitely partake in a lot of it. They're omnivores so they aren't too picky. They'll eat anything from leaves to salamanders. Great Smoky Mountains has a greater variety of salamanders than anywhere else in the world, with more than thirty different species so the bears are in the perfect spot. On the same recent trip to the Smokies Jason and I decided to stop and head into the woods to sit and silently wait for a bear to possibly come around. We didn't get too far in when Jason spotted one right in front of us. We stood and watched for a little bit as he took his paw and flipped over rocks from a semi-dried up creek. He was possibly in search for salamanders since they have the ability to hide under rocks with their slender bodies. Just one quick flip of the paw he was moving the rocks in search of possible food. They're lucky they have a rather large supply to help prepare them for the coming months.

What goes on physiologically with a bear's body is nothing short of mind-blowing. They undergo a reduction in metabolism so they're able to make it through the low temperatures of winter and the food shortages it can bring. Their heart rate drops to about eight beats per minute compared to an average human resting heart rate of 60-100 beats per minute. Can you imagine?! A reduction in body temperature, oxygen consumption, and breathing also aid in the ability to stay put for the winter months. Their waste, which would kill most animals to build up like that, is turned into protein. Female bears give birth to their young during the hibernation period and they all stay put for the remainder of the season until spring comes along.

We often talk about mama bears and the protective front they have for their cubs. That is just one of many ways they nurture and protect their young. Neither Jason or I really knew about the reproduction process of bears and how different it is. They start breeding sometime in the June or July months but gestation doesn't begin until November when the egg finally attaches itself to the womb. The cubs are born during hibernation phase, sometimes between late January or early February. The little cubs, which a litter often consists of three, weigh less than one pound and are usually only around eight inches long. So tiny! They don't even open their eyes until after twenty-eight days or more and it takes them a good five weeks to begin walking. They are completely dependent on mom for protection and nourishment. The cubs will stay by mama's side for eighteen months, growing and learning before venturing out on their own.

It's pretty neat what comes along with Jason's photography. It isn't just a photograph but an experience. I think that's what makes it all so special. We're out there searching and learning, even if it's just in our Appalachian neighborhood. We live in what we consider to be the most special place in the world; one of remarkable beauty that doesn't always get enough credit. Visiting and learning about the Smokies and Cades Cove gave us a much greater appreciation. It is such a vast landscape offering such diversity. We have always loved it, but didn't understand the extent of the diversity of different species that we have almost in our backyard. The bears appreciate it; that explains why they're so abundant.

We like to think of black bears as the mascot of our Appalachia and that's possibly one reason why we are drawn to them with such curiosity. They're iconic to these mountains and seem to thrive here. That is where we have a connection with them; we too need these mountains for escape and solitude.

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