You might be wondering if you’ll run across any wildlife or animals in the smoky mountains, and what those animals might be. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to a wide variety of wildlife, some more interesting than others. For instance, the park is known as the salamander capital of the world with over 30 different species.
No offense to the salamanders but for this article, I am going to stick to the stuff you are probably more interested in like bears, wolves, and mountain lions. Some of these are very rarely seen or gone from the park altogether like the red wolves. Others are pretty prevalent in the park like the black bears.
I’ve made a list of some of the more common and beloved animals in the Smoky Mountains that you may come across, or may once have live there.
Currently Living in the Great Smoky Mountains
I’ll start with the most obvious, the face of the Smokies, the black bear. There are approximately 1500-1600 bears in the smokies currently. At one point the black bear roamed most of North America, now they have found sanctuary in the Smoky Mountains.
Laws are very strict regarding interaction with bears in or around the park. Pretty much don’t interact with bears at all. Especially do not feed them or approach them at all. If one approaches you, slowly walk away, do not run. While they may look cute and cuddly on your T-shirt, black bears are wild animals that are considered very dangerous.
Elk once freely roamed the eastern United States in large numbers. The were eventually all but eliminated from the region due to overhunting by man. In 2001 the Great Smoky Mountains National Park reintroduced 25 elk into the park. In 2002, another 27 elk were imported from another area.
It is estimated that there are over 200 elk in the park today, most of which reside in the Cataloochee Valley which is in the southern part of the park. If you want to catch a glimpse of one in the park, this location will be your best bet. Most likely in the early morning or in the late evening will give you a good chance.
Elk are very large animals with bulls averaging about 700 lbs and cows around 500 lbs. Elk are wild animals and can also be aggressive. They have been known to charge humans if they feel threatened so keep your distance.
White Tailed Deer
Deer are very common throughout the park and are often seen in open fields and meadows. Cades Cove has many such fields where you might see some deer. The population is currently estimated to be over 6,000 deer in the park, however deer populations fluctuate and can change quickly.
White Tailed deer eat primarily nuts, plants, and other nutritious foods. The deer themselves may find themselves as food for bears, bobcats, or coyotes.
Unless the sightings and rumors about the Eastern Cougars living in the park prove to be true, then the North American Bobcat is the only feline living in the park currently. While they are predators, they are not dangerous to humans unless rabid.
Highly elusive, Bobcats are mostly nocturnal. The chances of actually spotting one in the park are slim to none, but they are there. They are territorial and will most likely live in the same area their whole lives.
Rather small compared to a Cougar, a Bobcat can weigh an average of around 15-20 lbs in adulthood. They hunt mostly small rodents, rabbits, and even deer in some cases. If you should ever see one in the park take a picture!
Similar to the Bobcat, Coyotes are nocturnal and reclusive. They roam all over the park and be seen at dawn or dusk if you are lucky. You may however hear their howls at night when they are out hunting.
They generally get up to about 50 lbs and will hunt and travel alone or in pairs unlike their cousin, the wolf, who travels in packs. They are generally scavengers and predators of small animals however there are reports of coyotes hunting and killing full grown deer in some instances.
Red and Gray Foxes
There are two species of foxes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Red Fox and the Gray Fox. Both species are nocturnal and not often seen. They are both around the same size reaching about 20-25 lbs fully grown.
The Red Fox has a more dog like face and a white tip on its tail. The name can be deceiving for the Red Fox because they might also be grey, black, and even white if they are albino. Red is the most common color however. Red foxes also commonly have black legs or black boots.
The Gray Fox is usually gray, although may also be red or brown in color. This species has a black tipped tail as opposed to the white tip. Unlike the Red Fox’s doglike face, the Gray Fox has more of a cat like face.
The red and gray fox can be found all over the park, and are often seen near Cade’s Cove. A fox’s diet consists of small mammals, birds, fish, eggs, insects, and whatever else they can rustle up.
The Smokies are also home to our nation’s symbol, the majestic Bald Eagle. One such eagle who lives in Sevier County, is Challenger. He is taken care of by the American Eagle Foundation, a nonprofit organization partnered with Dollywood. Challenger has performed over 350 “free flights” at events all over the place including sporting events and presidential inaugurations.
Even though bald eagle sightings in the park are said to be unusual, you can visit the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary at Dollywood if you want a peak at these beautiful birds. Also check out the eagle cam for a live look at a bald eagle nest.
At one point in the 1960s the bald eagle population was down to about 450 pairs in the lower 48 states. Today there are an estimated 15,000 pairs and bald eagles are no longer endangered.
Animals Threatened, Endangered, or Eliminated from the Great Smoky Mountains Entirely
From what I can gather, and according to this article, it is up in the air as to whether or not cougars still live in the park. At one point there were likely many cougars in Tennessee, and there are still numerous reports of sightings each year. Up to a dozen sightings a year are reported in the Smoky Mountains alone, but nothing concrete in over 30 years.
As for if cougars or mountain lions are in the Smoky Mountains today, it’s possible they are making a comeback but no one seems to have a definitive answer. The one man who will know before all of us is Donald Linzey, who has dedicated 40 years of his life to verifying the existence of cougars in this region, particularly GSMNP.
It goes without saying that in the one in a million chance that you should come across a freaking lion in the park, do not approach!
Red wolves were eradicated from the Smoky Mountains around 1905 due to overhunting most likely. The red wolf was almost pushed to the brink of complete extinction by the 1980s, being declared extinct in the wild.
In 1991, a effort started to repopulate the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with red wolves once again. Two mating pairs of red wolves were released into the park and were able to produce a total of 33 pups that were born in the wild.
Unfortunately the animals ventured outside of the park in search of food and project red wolves in the smokies (I made that up) was abandoned and the wolves were picked up. So unfortunately there are no known red wolves in the smoky mountains today, although people still claim to see them. They are most likely seeing coyotes.
Now a successful reintroduction story! The northern river otters were hunted and trapped for their fur to the point that they were totally extirpated from the area by 1936. In the late 80s and 90s they were reintroduced to the park. They are active day and night throughout the year and can sometimes be seen.
The reintroduction has been successful and they are thriving today. A few places in Gatlinburg and the Smokies you might catch a glimpse of one is Abrams Creek, Little River, Cataloochee Creek, Hazel Creek, Little Pigeon River, Big Creek, Deep Creek, and Oconaluftee River. Abrams Falls in Cades Cove is a popular place to spot them.
Also of course Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies if you want to see them in captivity.
Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel
Federally endangered and not likely to be seen, the Carolina northern flying squirrel lives in the higher elevations of western North Carolina, east Tennessee, and southwest Virginia.
These nocturnal critters like living high up in the trees, preferably conifers or northern hardwoods. They eat seeds, fruits, and bugs and live around 6-7 years. I am unable to find an estimate of how many remain in the wild, but they have been on the endangered species list since 1985.
This bird of prey was once prevalent across North America but was almost completely eradicated from the country in the 1960s due to the use of DDT pesticide. This pesticide was one of the first chemicals to be used widespread as a pesticide and at the time was thought to be the solution to all of our pest problems. However, some are still feeling the effects from it, like the peregrine falcon.
Luckily though, this one is another successful reintroduction by the National Park Service and the peregrines are making a comeback. 44 fledgling Peregrines were released in Tennessee between 1984 and 1993. Since then, the population of these falcons has been steadily increasing.
When diving for prey they can reach a top speed of up to 242 mph, making them the fastest animal on the planet! If you want to see these amazing birds in the Smokies, I suggest checking out the Alum Cave Trail as there is said to be a nesting pair of falcons here.
I didn’t list any reptiles or amphibians here, but take a look at this post I made about the poisonous and non-poisonous snakes that call Tennessee home.