All signs pointing to banner – even record – bear harvest in Pennsylvania
The potential for Pennsylvania black-bear hunters to set a new state record remains for a third consecutive year as hunters head afield Nov. 17 for the opening day of Pennsylvania’s four-day statewide firearms bear season.
Penn’s Woods has maintained a bear population of around 20,000 the past three years, but inclement opening-day hunting weather and other autumn oddities have helped bears elude the record numbers of hunters pursuing them the past two years. Fantastic mast crops have spread bears out, making them harder to find. Late leaf-drop – occurring this year, too – also has provided bears plenty of cover to sneak about the Commonwealth.
Still, with cooperative weather, particularly on the opening day, Pennsylvania has a chance to overtake the state’s record 4,350 bear harvest, set in 2011.
Even with one of the worst starts in history, bear hunters in 2017-18 managed a bear harvest of 3,438, which ranks ninth all-time. There were also some big bears in the harvest – 48 weighed more than 500 pounds.
“The best time to be a Pennsylvania bear hunter is right now,” said Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “The bear population has reached unprecedented size and bears are now found in most counties. It’s no wonder record numbers of hunters have bought bear licenses in recent years.”
Pennsylvania’s best bear seasons have been supported by clear, cold weather, with a little tracking snow. But a significant ice, fog or rain, or a good dumping of snow during the season, can hold the bear harvest down. Hunters have a harder time getting to or from their favorite hunting spots, the bears are harder to see, and overall participation generally drops.
The number of hunters buying bear licenses this year is on pace to reach 170,000 to 175,000, which is where license sales have topped out the past few years. The record for bear license sales occurred in 2015, when 175,314 were sold.
More bear hunters is always good for bear hunting, because their drives and movements regularly chase bears from the cover in which they prefer to hide. And once they’re on the move, hunters have greater opportunity.
But bears are great at sitting tight. It’s how they manage to become so big.
Two bears harvested in 2017 exceeded 700 pounds. Since 1986, there have been 32 bears recorded in the 700-pound weight class at Game Commission check stations.
And Mark Ternent, Game Commission bear biologist, said Penn’s Woods hold bigger bears, at least 800-pounders.
“Pennsylvania bear hunters already have taken a few 800-pounders, and the odds remain good for it to happen again,” Ternent said. “However, it’s no small feat for a bear to reach that size when you consider it takes about nine years for a bear to reach 500 pounds.”
But when it comes to record bears, it’s not all about the weight. Pennsylvania is No. 2 among all states and Canadian provinces in the number of black-bear entries in Boone & Crockett Club records, which are based on skull size. Last year, 22 black bears taken in Pennsylvania were entered into the club’s records.
Pennsylvania’s has been a premier bear-hunting destination for decades. But in recent years, its popularity has grown, given the size of its bear population and the size of the bears hunters are taking.
But make no mistake, bears are a hard species to hunt. Their densities rarely exceed one bear per-square-mile, and bear-hunter success rates typically fall between 2 and 3 percent, Ternent noted.
The key to taking a bear is tied to scouting just before season for areas with abundant fall foods and fresh sign of bear activity. Conducting hunting-party drives through thickets also is effective.
Bears were taken in 57 of the state’s 67 counties in 2017. The counties with the largest bear harvests were: Lycoming, 252 bears; Tioga, 214; Pike, 193; Potter, 161; Sullivan, 156; Wayne, 156; Clinton, 153; Bradford, 112; Warren, 109; and Luzerne, 108.