Booming bear population boosts Pennsylvania hunter odds
Thirty-nine American states have black bears. Pennsylvania — with roughly 20,000 bruins, the youngest average breeding age (3.2 years old) and the largest average litter size (three cubs — boasts perhaps the healthiest, most productive bear population in the entire country.
But it took more than three decades to get here.
According to Mark Ternent, lead bear biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, liberal hunting opportunities kept bear populations low and harvest rates stagnant for many years prior to 1980.
“The early ’80s were the turning point for black bears in our state,” Ternent explained. “In 1981, the first bear license was created, restocking efforts increased, we saw season closures in peripheral counties and complete statewide closures in the 1970s, and positive natural reproduction occurred at the same time. All contributed significantly to Pennsylvania black bears’ impressive rebound.”
To put it in perspective, the population has more than tripled since then, even with 20-percent of the state’s bears removed annually through regulated hunting, road kills and natural deaths. That means improved opportunities for bear hunters leading into this upcoming season.
“The bear population in 2015 was 20,000 bears, which is the highest we’ve ever seen based on mark-recapture population estimates,” Ternent said. “Keep in mind, this is with all the added hunting opportunities since 2001, including five days of archery bear season, a Saturday firearms opener and lengthened seasons in certain areas of the state.”
Despite Pennsylvania’s large number of bears, annual success rates remain around 3 percent for hunters pursuing them. That means less than three in every 100 hunters who purchase a bear license actually take a bear during hunting season.
This comes in stark contrast to deer hunters who are used to a much higher success rate — something former Pennsylvania lead bear and deer biologist Gary Alt said dictates a very different culture in terms of overall hunter satisfaction between the two species.
“Bear hunters’ expectations to actually kill a bear are generally pretty low,” Alt said. “They don’t anticipate success, and are thrilled with the outcome when they are successful. They are happy with the rise in bear populations and are therefore more satisfied.”
“Deer hunters, on the other hand, have seen a reduction in the deer herd, because from a biological perspective, we couldn’t continue to sustain our extensive deer populations. They’ve seen, in their lifetime, the population dip and have responded negatively to that. That’s not the case with bears.” Alt said.
According to Ternent, approximately 400 bears were struck by vehicles in 2015, and last year’s combined season harvest of 3,748 bruins ranked third-highest in state history — even with more bear hunters taking to the woods in pursuit of the large omnivore than any other state.
Yet, there’s apparently more room to grow.
“Our state still has more carrying capacity to support a larger bear population,” Ternent said. “In 40 years, we have not measured a reduced litter size, population, or body weight- indicating we are nowhere near our biological carrying capacity.”
But with bears continually dispersing beyond the outskirts of their normal range, Ternent has been forced to manage the population based on what he calls “cultural carrying capacity,” or how many bears Pennsylvania residents are willing to support or tolerate.
“Regulating a wildlife population based on cultural carrying capacity certainly has its challenges,” Ternent said. “The goal is to continually increase the acceptance of bears through educating the public, reducing nuisance interactions, relocating bears from urban/suburban settings, and removing bears through hunting and in some cases euthanasia.”
According to recent surveys, approximately 70 percent of Pennsylvania residents support legal regulated bear hunting, while 80 percent agree the population should be managed in some way.
From the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s viewpoint, regulated hunting makes the most sense as a reliable choice for keeping bear numbers in check, as it helps provide an accurate count of exactly how many bears are taken each year.
Ternent said the agency strongly adheres to the four cornerstones of its population-monitoring program when making decisions about bears.
“The first cornerstone is our statewide tagging program, with a goal of tagging 700 bears annually. Last year, we tagged over 900 bears. Second, are our mandatory bear check-stations, which tell us where the bears were shot, their size and age, how many bears were harvested, and also hunter residencies and demographics. The third cornerstone is reproduction and health, and the fourth is special research as needed, such as urban bear studies and mange research,” Ternent said.
Based on recent trends, it is likely the number of bears, bear hunters and bear harvests will continue to rise moving ahead into the future, which will impact Pennsylvania from a social, biological, recreational and economic perspective.
“With public support, we will continue to see bear expansion into the outskirts of our typical bear range,” Ternent said. “As bear populations increase, interest in bear hunting also increases, and we are certainly selling more bear licenses as a result of the added opportunities.”
In a state where wildlife protection, conservation, and preservation is funded solely through hunting license sales, that’s good news for the bears, even if it does mean better odds for the hunters pursuing them.