HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania has a chance to break last year’s record bear harvest of 4,653 in the coming bear seasons.
At first glance, it seems an unlikely possibility given so many bears were taken last fall. But even with last fall’s phenomenal harvest, there’s still about 20,000 black bears roaming Penn’s Woods. And those new and extended bear seasons that helped hunters set the record harvest are back this fall. In fact, an additional week of hunting has been added to the archery bear season, and the four-day general bear season, which starts on a Saturday, will offer a day of Sunday hunting, giving bear hunters the whole weekend to pursue bears.
“It’s hard to comprehend what’s happening in Pennsylvania bear hunting, especially if you can recall when the Game Commission was trying to resurrect the Commonwealth’s bear population back in the 1980s and ’90s,” noted Game Commission executive director Bryan Burhans. “But here we are, on the cusp of another fall loaded with bear-hunting opportunities and a robust bear population.
“Pennsylvania bear hunting has never packed as much widespread opportunity and excitement as it does right now,” Burhans emphasized. “Today, bears inhabit most counties, providing closer-to-home hunting. But their populations also remain strong on their primary range in the northern tier. So, pick a place to hunt and go. It’s a great time to be a bear hunter!”
Pennsylvania hunters apparently feel the same way. Last year, the agency sold a record 202,043 bear hunting licenses. This year, bear license sales are 18 percent ahead of last year’s pace as of Oct. 9.
“Over the past three years, more than 10,000 black bears were taken by Pennsylvania hunters,” noted Mark Ternent, a veteran Game Commission bear biologist who currently serves as a regional wildlife biologist for the agency’s Northcentral Region Office. “And although that’s sounds like a lot, it’s the third time it’s happened in the Commonwealth since 2003.
“Last year’s record bear harvest removed 20 to 25 percent of the state’s substantial bear population, but it isn’t expected to produce significant declines in bear numbers,” Ternent said. “We should have close to 20,000 bears statewide.”
The Game Commission in 2019 had expanded hunting opportunities to manage bears more efficiently. Previous bear seasons, occasionally impacted by weather that limited hunter success, simply weren’t getting the job done. With a bear population hovering around 20,000 for several years – and with the potential to grow larger – the agency needed to increase pressure on the resource. A record bear harvest followed.
Last year’s record harvest broke the previous record harvest set in 2011, when 4,350 bears were taken. In 2018, hunters took a total of 3,153 bears – Pennsylvania’s 11th best bear harvest. The only other year hunters took more than 4,000 bears was in 2005 when 4,164 were taken.
“Surely it’s hard for some to imagine that Pennsylvania has such a vibrant black bear population,” noted Tom Keller, the Game Commission’s Game Mammals Section Supervisor. “But bears are incredibly adaptable; they can fit in almost anywhere that offers them cover and reliable food sources. It’s why bears are found in more places in Pennsylvania than any time in the Game Commission’s existence.”
Last year, bears were taken in 58 of 67 counties and 22 of 23 of the state’s Wildlife Management Units (WMUs).
The largest bear through all 2019 seasons is the 813-pound male taken with a rifle on the opening day of the general bear season in Smithfield Township, Monroe County, by Victor M. Vassalluzzo, of Kintnersville.
Lycoming County led all other counties with the harvest of 284 bears. It was followed by Clinton and Tioga counties, both with 267. Other top counties for bear harvests in 2019 were: Huntingdon, 180; Potter, 174; Luzerne, 163; Pike, 161; Bedford, 156; Centre, 146; and Warren, 146.