It just can’t happen again! Everyone says so, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission has even taken steps to prevent it.
Of course, I’m talking about the astounding Keystone State bear harvest of 2005. After shattering the state’s harvest record last year — to the tune of an incredible 4,164 bruins during the regular and extended season — the PGC has taken steps to reduce the area covered by the extended season. One whole wildlife management unit, WMU 4C in the Northeast Region, has been removed from the extended hunt, and portions of other WMUs have also been cut.
On the plus side, for the first time ever, the PGC has authorized a designated two-day archery season in nine wildlife management units. The two-day hunt is scheduled for Nov. 15 and 16, a week before the traditional three-day statewide black bear season, which runs from Nov. 20 to 22.
Certainly, last year’s high harvest numbers caught many folks off guard. None of the experts predicted an increase of 25 percent over the previous record of 3,075, set in 2000.
“Nobody really expected a kill of over 4,000 bears. But given the bear population and a combination of favorable factors, it was not that surprising,” said Mark Ternent, who has headed the PGC’s black bear management program for the last six years.
Ternent credited five factors for the record-breaking harvest: an expanded extended season, a higher overall bear population, a record number of bear hunters, favorable weather and a mast crop that kept bears from denning early.
Last year’s traditional three-day hunt broke a previous record by 278 bruins. But it was the extended hunt, which produced 810 bears, that lead to the huge harvest.
And if that wasn’t enough, a new state-record bear, with an estimated live weight of 733 pounds, was brought to the scales.
To bring the 2006 harvest back in line with management goals, Ternent originally proposed to close the extended season in WMUs 3B, 4C and 4E and shorten the extended season in WMUs 3C and 3D.
According to Ternent, Pennsylvania’s bear population for the last four years has held strong at 15,000 bruins. However, he said those numbers are “leveling off.”
“Ultimately, the 2006 season will be a compromise between biologists, regional staff and the commissioners,” Ternent said. “I’m willing to go along with what they selected.”
The commission approved a concurrent season in WMUs 3C and 3D and in portions of WMUs 3B, 4E and 2G. The extended season in 4C has been closed this year, but the opening of a portion of 2G is new this season.
A concurrent bear-deer season is set for a portion of WMU 3B.
A concurrent bear-deer season will also be held in the portion of WMUs 2G and 3B in Lycoming County that lies north of the West Branch Susquehanna River.
“We are not experiencing nuisance bear complaints throughout all of WMUs 3B and 2G,” said Dennis Dusza, the PGC’s North-Central Region director. “However, we are receiving numerous complaints within the area surrounding Williamsport, as designated by the board’s amendment. We want to provide hunting opportunities and direct hunter pressure to those areas in need of relief.”
This extended season is held in conjunction with the first week of the regular deer season from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2.
The two-day archery season for bears will be held in WMUs 2C, 2D, 2E, 2F, 2G, 3A, 4A, 4B and 4D.
According to PGC press secretary Jerry Feaser, the archery season is being held in areas that never had an extended bear season.
“This is just a new opportunity for archery hunters,” said Feaser. “It won’t have an overall impact on the bear population.”
“The archery harvest will be fairly small,” he said, “but we have no way to predict participation or success. However, we believe the bear population can sustain it.”
LOTS OF BEARS, AND BIG ONES, TOO!
While last year’s harvest numbers were impressive, so were individual weights. Taken were some 17 bears that weighed 600 pounds or more.
The largest bear taken by a hunter — a 733-pound behemoth shot in Fayette County — was also an old bear. The animal had been tagged and transferred at least once, and biologists said this record-breaker was probably 15 years old. Its skull measured 23 3/16 inches (length plus width). It ties a bear taken in California as the largest ever taken legally by a hunter in the world.
“There are not a lot of 15-year-old black bears out there,” said Ternent. “In fact, 15-year-olds make up less than 1 percent of the state’s bear population. Over the past 25 years, only 63 bears age 15, or older male bears have been examined at check stations during the hunting seasons.”
In a testament to what is obviously the growing popularity of bear hunting in the state, the PCG sold 142,062 bear licenses last season, up nearly 10,000 from the year before (132,181).
Feaser said that many deer hunters are purchasing bear stamps. With the extended period now including the first week of deer season, sportsmen are taking advantage of new opportunities.
“We have some enormous bears and hunters are advantage of the extended season,” Feaser said.
Ternent described the past winter’s den-monitoring — a process in which he examines each bear, litter sizes and the health of each animal — as “standard.”
He said that many sows had three cubs, the appropriate number, and that the population’s overall health was good.
The largest total harvest by far occurred in the North-Central region of the state. Lycoming County became the first county to tally more than 300 bears for its total harvest. Clinton, Potter and Tioga counties recorded harvests of more than 200 bears.
Lycoming County’s kill exceeded its previous best of 244. Tioga County went from 119 to 242 bears; Clinton County stepped up from 218 in 2004 to 227 last year; Potter zoomed from
87 to 214; Cameron, from 95 to 172; Clearfield, from 94 to 159; and Centre County, from 95 to 150.
McKean County hunters took 146 bears, up from 103; and Elk County climbed from 73 to 112. Union County’s kill went from 26 to 35.
For good hunting in the region, look to Tioga State Forest in the Cedar Mountain and Pine Creek Gorge Area, west of Route 287. Tioga State Forest covers 161,600 acres. In that same zone, try State Game Lands No. 208, with 8,862 acres south of Manhattan on Route 6. In Potter County, try the portion of Susquehannock State Forest south of Route 44. This state forest stretches across Potter and McKean counties and has 258,900 acres.
Many bear hunters expected a significant decline in the Northeast Region’s bear harvest last year. However, they were wrong! They pointed to fewer nuisance complaints in certain sections of the region. (Nuisance complaints were the initial rationale for the extended season in the Poconos.)
A widespread harvest decline did not materialize as predicted. In fact, there was a big increase in most counties. Wayne County went from 135 bears two years ago to 165 last season. Bradford County’s harvest jumped from 72 to 159. And Sullivan County hunters went from 56 bears in 2004 to 134 bears in 2005.
Pike County, in the heart of the Poconos, recorded only a modest increase, 158 up from.
The real surprise in the region was that Luzerne County was one of only nine in the entire state that recorded a lower harvest last year. But even so, Luzerne County missed its mark by only one bear, with 137 bruins harvested in 2005.
Delaware State Forest and the state game lands along Route 6 east of Lake Wallenpaupack provide most of the bear-hunting opportunities in the Poconos.
In Pike County, state game lands totaling more than 21,000 acres offer good hunting north and south of Route 6.
In Bradford County, hunters should consider SGL 123 near Berrytown with 1,067 acres and, on the southern border of Sullivan County, SGL 12 with 24,479 acres.
In recent years, PGC officials have stated that the Southwest Region needs more bear hunters because there are plenty of bruins in the woods. Last season, hunters apparently heeded the call. Somerset County recorded the highest increase in the region over the last two seasons, with 107 bruins in 2005, more than double the 51 bears tagged in 2004.
Fayette County produced 75 bears, up from 57, and Indiana County went from 53 to 65. Westmoreland County remained nearly par, with 45. Armstrong dropped from 35 to 33, and Cambria County rose from 21 to 30.
The big news in the region was the giant 733-pound bruin taken on Chestnut Ridge in Fayette County.
At the bottom of Chestnut Ridge SGL, 138 offers nearly 3,000 acres that are open to bear hunting. Forbes State Forest north of Wirsing is also a good bet. Forbes State Forest in Westmoreland, Somerset and Fayette counties contains 54,800 acres. SGL 153, with nearly 3,000 acres, covers the top of Chestnut Ridge in Indiana County.
Divided by a thin valley, Laurel Hill contains a number of huntable state parks and state game lands. SGL 42, with 15,330 acres, is in Westmoreland County southeast of New Florence on Route 711. Forbes State Forest also stretches over onto Laurel Hill. SGL 111, with 10,520 acres, is in Somerset County south of Route 653 and reaches down to Ohiopyle State Park.
The South-Central Region, which includes the lower Alleghenies, also contributed to last year’s record-breaking bear season. All nine counties in the region either tied their 2004 harvest marks or beat them substantially.
Huntingdon County hunters recorded 127 bears last year, up from 2004′s 73 bruins. Bedford County nearly quadrupled its output, from 25 bears in 2004 to 94 last year. Similarly, Blair and Fulton counties tallied substantial increases.
Amazingly, the South-Central Region would probably do even better if more hunters visited the area.
“The region’s wildlife conservation officers have been calling for hunters to consider their areas,” said Jerry Feaser, PGC press secretary.
Along Kittatinny Mountain in Franklin County, look to SGL 76 with 4,324 acres. SGL 76 is also connected to Buchanan State Forest, with over 69,000 acres west of Upper Strasburg.
In Huntingdon and Fulton counties, look to SGL 81, with 3,533 acres, at the bottom of Blacklog Mountain next to Shade Mountain, north of Fort Littleton. Also in Huntingdon County, try SGL 99, with over 3,500 acres; SGL 71, with 4,122 acres; and that portion of Rothrock State Forest along Jacks Mountain west of Route 747.
There are plenty of bears in the northwestern part of the state — the trouble is getting to them. Nevertheless, in two counties that comprise the bulk of Allegheny National Forest, there was a substantial harvest increase last season.
Warren County rose from 48 to 78 bruins last season, and Forest County went from 50 to 68. Jefferson County, which contains Clear Creek State Forest, also bolstered its numbers from 45 to 62. Only the western counties between Pittsburgh and Erie did not have substantial numbers, though all but Erie County recorded bears.
“Apparently hunters are just now realizing they may hunt around the Allegheny Forest,” Feaser noted. “Warren and Forest counties have prime bear habitat,” he added. “There are large tracts of wooded land that are open to the public. Hunters simply need to make the effort to get to these places.”
Allegheny National Forest contains over 513,000 acres. Using the city of Warren as base, try the portion that lies east and west of Route 6, between Stoneham and Tiona. SGL 29, with over 9,300 acres, also lies west of that area in Watson Township.
The Warren County Visitors Bureau offers a wealth of information on the region, available at 1-800-624-7802.
In southern Forest County on the Clarion County border, look for another large portion of the state forest.
In addition, the area has SGL 24 with over 8,300 acres.
Blue Mountain is the boundary of the black bear’s Southeast Region range. While a surprising number of bruins was taken in the mountain area two years ago, the number dropped considerably last year.
Schuylkill County was the only one to show a substantial bear harvest over the last two seasons. Both years came in with the same number of bruins — 66.
In Schuylkill County, look to Weiser State Forest (19,200) acres along Blue Mountain and SL
G 110 with nearly 10,100 acres. SGL 106 boasts another 9,374 acres, all in northern Berks County.
Dauphin County hunters recorded 40 bruins last year, down 10 from the previous season. In Dauphin County, look to another portion of Weiser State Forest along Berry Mountain, as well as SGL 210 with 11,124 acres, along Berry and Peters mountains.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For additional information on hunting bear in Pennsylvania, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission in Harrisburg at (717) 787-4250, or log onto the agency’s Web site at www.pgc.State.PA.us.
For travel information and accommodations, call 1-800-VISIT-PA.