The American black bear is a well-known symbol of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is home to about 1,500 bears, a density of about two per square mile. Although its native range was once far greater, encroachment on the black bear’s habitat now limits it to woodland areas. The Great Smokies are densely forested — more than 95 percent — making it a great home for bears. Black bears are avid climbers, often scaling trees to reach food. Smoky Mountain black bears are peculiar in that they often den in standing hollow trees.
However, since Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited of all parks in the system, there’s a lot of potential for human-bear incidents. Park staff combat this by setting stringent regulations designed to protect bears and visitors alike. This includes measures such as prohibiting visitors from feeding bears (and other wildlife), and requiring secure storage of food in campsites. Willfully approaching a bear in the park is illegal.
Great Horned Owl
More than 240 bird species have been sighted in Great Smoky Mountain National Park and about 120 of them are thought to breed within it. The great horned owl is a year-round resident of the park. Its preferred habitat is woodland adjacent to wide open fields, which facilitate hunting. The owl predominantly resides in “borrowed” nest sites in trees up to 70 feet high. If you’re looking to spot a great horned owl, you’re probably going to need some special equipment — these winged hunters are nocturnal.
Numbering around 6,000 animals, white-tailed deer are the most populous mammal in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. However, that can vary greatly due to factors such as natural predation from coyotes, bears and bobcats, as well as overpopulation, which makes adequate food scarce. Visitors can see them in the open meadows of Cades Cove and the Cataloochee Valley.
Some have called Great Smoky Mountain National Park the “salamander capital of the world,” since it is home to 30 salamander species in five families, making the park one of the most diverse areas on Earth for this amphibian. This includes brightly colored black-chinned red salamanders as well as varieties of lungless salamanders — a subspecies that breathes through its skin — and giant hellbenders that can grow up to 29 inches long.