East Tennessee residents generally hear the same advice every year when it comes to black bears.

If you live in an area where bears are active, avoid leaving pet food outside that can attract the wild animals. Use bear-proof garbage containers. Clean grills and smokers.

This year the message from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) includes a new warning: lock your car doors and do not keep food or trash in your vehicles.

Photo from July 2017 when a bear approached and entered this van, attracted by a jar of peanut butter.

"We've had a few bears get into vehicles. Don't store food or keep wrappers from restaurants in your vehicles. That food scent will attract them. Some have gotten lucky and bumped the door open when it was unlocked. There are other times someone left a window cracked and a bear was able to reach in and pop the window out. So, now you've got a bear in your vehicle and, obviously, that's not going to turn out well for anybody," said Dan Gibbs, TWRA biologist.

Gibbs said 2017 has been fairly average in terms of bear activity. This year the rainfall was back to normal and the crop of acorns and other hard mast should provide plenty of food to the thousands of animals binging before hibernation.

Bears binge on hard mast in the fall to bulk up for hibernation.

"You see a lot of activity because the bears are trying to put on weight for hibernation, so they're really trying to get a lot of calories really fast. It's spotty in places with acorns. You'll have one place where there are not many, but I've been other places where it's like walking on marbles going through the woods," said Gibbs. "I think we're going to be in pretty good shape, there's a lot of acorns on the ground. That tends to cut down on the number of calls we get about nuisance bears."

Even with a buffet on the ground, bears and people are bound to cross paths this time of year. Earlier this week Pellissippi State sent a text alert warning staff and students about the presence of a black bear on its Blount County campus.

Angie Sweeney operates a company that cleans rental properties and sent WBIR 10News a photograph of a black bear on top of her vehicle while working in Gatlinburg this week. She said the bear did not cause any major damage aside from a few scratches to the paint.

A black bear climbs on top of a SUV in Gatlinburg. Photo by Angie Sweeney.

"Some people think it's cute and neat at first. But then bears start tearing things up. And if they find food, they're going to come back. Those bird feeders can provide the same amount of calories as what a bear would find in a full day of foraging in the wild," said Gibbs.

Gibbs says bears that grow to depend on people for food are not as healthy and do not live as long as bears that remain wild. Bears that become a nuisance or danger to people are often relocated or euthanized.

"That's why you should care. If the bear gets habituated, it just does not turn out well for them," said Gibbs.

Signs warn visitors about bear activity in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 

Gibbs said bears are spreading to new areas of the state as they slowly repopulate the natural range that once spanned from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River. As bears are spotted, TWRA wants people to report bear sightings using its ISAB (I saw a bear) survey system so it can track the inhabited areas. This TWRA website page provides a link to ISAB to report bears in your area.

Gibbs also recommends visiting the bearwise.org website for additional tips and advice on how to avoid conflicts with bears and keep the animals wild.