Pennsylvania's Incredible Giant Black Bears

Pennsylvania's Incredible Giant Black Bears

Most states never produce a black bear weighing over 500 pounds, but the Keystone State is known for its steady supply of 700-pound-plus bruins.

Photo by Vic Attardo

Hunters in most states think 400-pound bruins are trophy sized, but Keystone State hunters take bears that weigh twice as much every year. Here's a look at how and why.

Last year, hunters checked in 56 bruins that tipped the scales at 500 pounds or better. Most states and Canada have trouble producing a few bears that reach the 500-pound mark, let alone 56 specimens over 500 pounds in one season, including a few 700- and 800-pounders thrown into the mix.

"Pennsylvania has become one of America's top black bear hunting states, both for the incredible size some of our black bears attain and for their increasing availability here. Today, bears are taken in 50 or more counties annually," said Vern Ross, executive director of the PGC.

Although other states have produced large bears, none have done so as consistently as Pennsylvania. The 700- and 800-pound bruins shot in the past three seasons are truly exceptional, yet they consistently show up at bear check stations each season. We couldn't even include the 500- and 600-pound class for lack of space!

Topping the list was the 864-pound bruin taken by Douglas Kristiansen in 2003. An 837-pounder was shot by Ray P. Reber, also in 2003. Last season, Jeremy B. Kresge took an 834-pound brute, and an improperly licensed hunter took an 808-pound bear in 2003.

A 761-pound bear was tagged by Earl J. Cichy Jr. in 2002, and a 739-pound bear shot by Brian J. Coxe in 2003 carried the largest skull ever harvested by a hunter in Pennsylvania. Other 700-pound-class bears include a 725-pounder taken by Benjamin A. Long in 2003 and a 721-pound bruin checked by Michael M. Sliker in 2002.

Most of the 800-pound bruins shot in the past couple of years were taken during the one-week extended bear season, which runs concurrently with the firearms gun season.


When it comes to bear hunting in Pennsylvania, Brian J. Coxe of Weatherly is no stranger. During the 2003 bear season, Coxe was able to harvest his third Keystone State bruin. Although it ranked fourth in body weight that year at 739 pounds, it has the all-time largest skull of any black bear harvested legally in the state. It netted an impressive 22 14/16 Boone and Crockett inches.

It is a testimony to the quality of any state's bear population when you can harvest an animal with a record-book skull tipping the scales at 739 pounds and yet have several bruins weighing more taken during the same season.

The Coxe bear was downed at 2 p.m. on Nov. 25, 2003, in Weatherly Township in Carbon County. It was the last day of the season. Coxe had hunted all three days with family members without success.

Coxe said he had been scouting the region and knew a large bear was in the area. On that day, he was about to start a small drive for his brother and father. As he moved through the heavy laurel, he noticed the fresh tracks of a large bear. He quietly followed the tracks until he came to a small creek. Up ahead the creek branched into a Y with a small island in the middle.

As Coxe scanned the woods ahead, he saw the bear lying on the island. He raised his rifle and the bear bolted, but not before Coxe could fire one shot.

Coxe saw that he had hit the bear and proceeded to follow the blood trail. After a short distance, he saw the bear standing on the edge of a cliff watching its back trail. Coxe took careful aim and hit the bear hard, and it fell off the cliff onto some rocks below.

At this point, Coxe yelled to his brother and father that he had a bear down. His father came to see the animal as his brother went to fetch the four-wheeler.

As Coxe and his father approached the bear, the animal got up and started to move in their direction. Coxe raised his rifle and fired a third shot, ending the hunt.

Coxe could not believe the size of the bear when he approached it.

"I couldn't even lift his head," Coxe recalled. It took seven men, a four-wheeler, and a lot of ingenuity to get the bear out of the woods.

"I knew I wanted to take the bear to a taxidermist, so we had to be careful not to ruin the hide," Coxe said, "I wrapped it up in my all-in-one suit and seven of us skidded the bear 10 feet at a time to the four-wheeler. It was a lot of work."

Because of the size of the bear and its trophy ranking, many people have asked Coxe if he was going to quit pursuing bears because it would be hard to duplicate that performance.

"No way! I am hooked, but my brother and father have told me that now I am the permanent pusher!"

Brian McLaughlin, Coxe's taxidermist, works in Hazleton, not far from where many of these large bears have been killed. He has noticed an increase in the size and number of bears coming in over the past few years.

"They keep getting bigger bears every year, and more of them," McLaughlin said. "In fact, I have mounted two 700-pound-plus bears in the past three years."


Mark Ternent, the PGC's black bear biologist, offered some insight on why Keystone State bears grow to such a large size.

"Basically, it is our diverse habitat and readily available foods," he said, noting that most of the big bears come from the Northeast Region.

Ternent explained that there are three factors that must be met for bears to reach record weights: 1) diverse habitat, 2) longevity, and 3) high-calorie food sources.

According to Ternent, the reason Pennsylvania was dubbed "the Keystone State" is the same reason our bears grow large: location.

Because of the size of the bear and its trophy ranking, many people have asked Coxe if he was going to quit pursuing bears because it would be hard to duplicate that performance.

"We are smack dab in the middle of the black bear's East Coast range, which runs from Maine to Georgia. We are not too far south or north. Pennsylvania is strategically placed, so our bears get the best

of both worlds. Our forests produce abundant soft and hard mast, which is essential for weight development. This is why many of the Northern states are unable to produce bears as large as Pennsylvania's -- they do not produce the variety of mast found here.

In addition to a healthy mast crop, many of our bears have found a way to augment their diet.

"Some of our bears have become dumpster divers and bird feeder raiders. They spend their time guzzling down high-calorie foods," Ternent said. "This is not our goal and we have been working to change the habits of people in these areas, but it is just a matter of fact. Bears get into these food sources and take full advantage of them."

Ternent also said the age of the bear is also important.

"To produce a large bear, it must reach maturity. Any farmer can tell you it takes time to grow, and bears are no different. This is where habitat and terrain play a vital role. In the northeast and north-central part of the state, bears have plenty of room to hide," Ternent said. "Those blueberry swamps and laurel patches make perfect hiding places."

In the north-central part of the state, the topography of the mountains also makes it easier for large bears to hide. Apparently, the bears have figured this out and are spending time in heavy cover, putting on the years as well as the pounds.


Last year, 17-year-old Jeremy B. Kresge of Blakeslee shot the largest bear taken by a hunter. His bruin weighed 834 pounds and was harvested in Tunckhannok Township in Monroe County at 4:15 p.m.

Kresge's hunting partner, William Graver, shot another large bear 30 minutes before Kresge pulled the trigger. Graver's bear weighed in at 586 pounds. Both bears were harvested in the same township. The entire crew had sore backs after hauling those two bruins out on the same day!


Biologist Ternent shared his predictions with us for the 2005 season.

"It is tough to tell in advance what will happen because of weather conditions," he said. "Weather is a huge factor in determining the success of bear hunters. We know the bears are there, and as long as the other elements are in place, we can expect a harvest similar to the past few seasons."

For more information on bear hunting in Pennsylvania, go to the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Web site at Or contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797; or call (717) 787-4250.

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