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Bear Big Game Hunting Pennsylvania

Somerset County’s November Black Bears

October 5th, 2010 0

Is Somerset County your best bet for Keystone State bruins? Our expert thinks so — and explains why. (November 2007)


Photo by Mark S. Werner.

Sometimes, things work out better than anyone could ever have hoped. So it is with the black bears of Pennsylvania’s Somerset County.

Between 1979 and 1984, the Pennsylvania Game Commission trapped 72 black bears in the state’s “big woods” counties — where bears have always been plentiful — and moved them to the southwestern corner of the state. Some of the bruins went to eastern Westmoreland County, but most ended up in Somerset County.

The plan was to see if bears might thrive there as well.

Have they ever!

Black bears are now common in Westmoreland, Indiana, Armstrong, Fayette and Cambria counties.

They routinely show up — even if they don’t necessarily stay — in Allegheny, Greene and Washington counties. But Somerset County is clearly the heart and soul of southwestern Pennsylvania’s bear country.

“Ever since we reintroduced bears into Somerset County in 1979 and 1980, that population has been doing well,” said Mark Ternent, the commission’s black bear biologist. “If you look at the trend in harvests in Somerset County over the last 15 years, they’ve been growing steadily as well.”

In the Southwest Region, it’s not just the case of a big fish in a little pond. But to really understand just how well Somerset’s bear population is doing, you need to view it in the context of the overall state harvest.

In 2006, Somerset County gave up 124 bears to hunters. Only eight other counties — all of them in the traditional bear range of the north-central and northeast regions — surrendered more.

“Somerset County could have ranked higher if some of the counties with extended bear seasons weren’t included,” said Brian Witherite, a PGC wildlife conservation officer in southern Somerset County.

That wasn’t any one-year fluke, either. The county gave up more than 100 bears in 2005, as well. Except for 2004, it has ranked in the top 15 counties for bears harvests for the last six years.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but first and foremost is that Somerset County offers some fine bear habitat.

“Somerset County has a good mix of forest land and agricultural land,” said Travis Anderson, the commission’s wildlife conservation officer for the northern half of the county.

“What the forests can’t provide, farmers — however reluctantly — do. We trap and transfer lot of bears out of farm fields.”

Somerset doesn’t get hunted as hard as some other counties. But on opening day, certain areas see good crowds especially groups putting on drives, Witherite noted.

“In the Southwest Region,” Ternent said, “bears are hunted, but not with the same intensity as in some of the more traditional bear range.”

Which means that Somerset County bears get the chance to grow big. Witherite said he’s handled bears that would exceed 650 pounds in the fall, and in 2005, a hunter in neighboring Fayette County took a 733-pound bruin.

Ternent said the chances of running into a very large bear are probably better in the Southwest Region — and in Somerset County in particular — than anywhere else in the state.

“I think those bears don’t see quite as much hunting pressure and subsequently live longer,” he suggested. “And they have a variety of food sources. Chances are there’s a state-record bear running around somewhere in that area.”

Hunters interested in visiting Somerset County this fall should consider the following hotspots:

STATE GAME LANDS No. 82
In southern Somerset County around Glencoe, this game lands features a mix of woods and fields. It’s popular with small game hunters because it has plenty of standing corn each fall and is stocked heavily with pheasants.

Black bears fatten up on corn, too, as well as on the abundant mast crops in this game lands’ extensive wooded sections.

A number of bears in the 250- to 350-pound class are harvested here each fall.

State Game Lands No. 82 covers more than 6,000 acres.

SGL No. 50
This game lands is a hidden gem.

“A lot of people don’t associate that game lands with good hunting because it’s so close to Somerset (the county seat) and a state correctional institute,” said biologist Ternent. “But we trap a lot of bears there for research purposes. I’ve never been skunked yet.”

State Game Lands 50 features thick woods — the kind you have to hunt by driving — mixed with food plots, wetlands, and rock crevices.

Surrounded by private agricultural land, it offers bears plenty of food and cover.

Ternent said the chances of running into a very large bear are probably better in the Southwest Region — and in Somerset County in particular — than anywhere else in the state.

Brian Witherite said that some large bears — males weighing as much as 465 pounds — have been captured elsewhere, tagged, and released onto SGL 50. And many of them are still out there.

SGL No. 42
On the ridge of the Laurel Highlands that forms the Somerset-Westmoreland county border, State Game Lands No. 42 is adjacent to Forbes State Forest in mountain country and big woods. It’s steep and rocky, but when there’s a good mast crop, it offers good hunting.

“The first day of bear season, the area will literally be loaded with cars,” WCO Anderson said. “There will be people everywhere. For a bear to get up and walk around without being seen is pretty difficult,”

STATE GAME LANDS
No. 231 & No. 271

These are two of the smaller game lands in the county, but both hold their share of bears.

SGL No. 271 lies adjacent to Forbes State Forest, west of Mt. Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania. But the terrain is not as steep or rugged as you might imagine. This game lands sits on a plateau, so walking is not overly difficult.

SGL 231 covers about 500 acres south of Meyersdale. It isn’t big enough to hold a lot of bears on its own at any one time, but the animals constantly move through as they travel in search of food.

PRIVATE LAND OPTIONS
No discussion of bear hunting in Somerset County would be complete without advising hunters to consider knocking on a few doors in the so-called “lowlands.”

Between game lands, state forests and state parks, bear hunters can find plenty of places to pursue their sport without ever having to ask permission. It’s equally true, however, that bears pay no attention to boundaries! Hunters willing to visit some of the farms around Boswell and Jerome, Somerset and Windber, Meyersdale and Salisbury, or Rockwood and Berlin, can sometimes find good hunting without a lot of competition.

“There are a lot of areas off the mountains that are open to hunting,” WCO Anderson said. “Even owners of posted lands may give bear hunters permission to hunt. There are bears there that have learned to live in smaller woodlots around people.”

Hunters who visit one or more of those places just might run into a real trophy this fall. Anderson, for one, thinks the outlook for bear hunting in Somerset County is again promising for this season.

“It will be interesting to see what happens in the county this season,” he said. “I’ll be watching to see if we can keep our harvest numbers up, or if they’ll drop. Sometimes that happens because hunters did what they were supposed to do in the years before, which is control the population.

“I don’t necessarily see that happening this year. We’ve been handling a fair number of nuisance bruin complaints lately, so I think the population is doing well.”

For more information on bear hunting, season dates and check station locations, visit www.pgc.state.pa.us , or call (717) 787-4250.

For lodging and travel information on Somerset County, contact the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau at www.laurelhighlands.org , or else call (724) 238-5661.

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