Pennsylvania bear hunters — buoyed by a statewide population that's hit an all-time high of 20,000 animals — will have more opportunity afield this fall than ever before. The extra opportunities come in two forms. The statewide archery season has been extended by a day and, most importantly, moved up on the calendar, so that for the first time bow hunting for bears falls within the archery deer season. At the same time, opportunities to shoot a bear within the firearms deer season have been expanded, too.
It's all because bear numbers have grown. The state was home to about 15,000 bears in 2000, says Mark Ternent, black bear biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. That jumped up to 18,000 in 2008 and remained at that level through 2015. It then jumped again, to where it is today.
"Each of those two population increases followed years when we had unusually low harvests," Ternent said. "We ended up with a little bump in the population."
Indeed, in 2007, hunters killed 2,362 bears. That compares to 3,214 the year before and 3,460 the year after.
In 2014, hunters killed 3,371 bears. That compares to 3,510 the year before and 3,748 the year after.
Then there's last year. Going into the season, the state was, as Ternent said, home to as many bears as ever. Bear hunter numbers hit a new peak, too, around 175,000. And there was an enormous crop of red oak acorns across much of the state. Some were expecting perhaps a new record kill. But that didn't happen — largely, Ternent says, because of weather. Heavy rain and fog on opening day of the statewide firearms season — a day that accounts for more bears taken than any other — torpedoed that. Still, hunters killed 3,529 bruins last year. That stands as the fifth-most ever.
Only 2001 (4,350), 2005 (4,164), 2015 (3,748) and 2012 (3,632) gave up more. That points to just how good things could be again this fall. The commission is giving hunters every opportunity to take a lot of animals, in hope of putting a lid on the population.
"Habitat carrying capacity isn't an issue, unlike what it is with deer and other species," he said. "But the problem with conflicts is real. We certainly don't want the population to go any higher. That's where the new seasons come in."
The statewide archery season runs from Oct. 30 to Nov. 4. That's a full six days, Monday through Saturday, on what is the next-to-last week of the archery deer season. For the past few years, hunters had been asking the commission to overlap archery hunting opportunities for the two species. They targeted the last week of the archery deer season with that request. wCommisisoners didn't go there, for two reasons.
One centered around deer. Participation in archery deer hunting has skyrocketed, with more than 330,000 hunters participating now.
In what is a huge change from the past, bow hunters are killing about one-third of all the deer taken in a year's time now. That includes 35 to 40 percent of all the bucks. Commissioners didn't want to add to that and worried that putting bear hunters in the woods would do so.
"We were concerned about harvesting additional bucks in that last week," said board member Dave Putnam of Centre County.
The additional bear harvest that's likely to occur is the other issue.
Traditionally, the statewide archery bear season has led to a harvest of about 200 to 300 animals. Ternent expects that, with the new season, to climb to 700 to 900. But he admits that's only a guess.
"We do have room to increase the harvest across the state. And the archery season will certainly do that," he said. "But in terms of how much, we don't have a lot to go on. Almost 20 percent of our 300,000 or so archery deer hunters buy a bear license now. So you're talking about some big numbers. Even if that only increases by 5 percent, 5 percent of 300,000 is a big number. I think a lot of hunters who would just be deer hunting anyway will buy a bear license just in case they see a bear. But I think there will also be some dedicated bear hunters, for sure."
As for where hunters should look for bears in the archery season, Ternent suggested focusing on food sources. The animals will be heavily feeding in anticipation of winter.
"The bears will be into the acorn stands by then. And of course, apples are a big food in the fall, as any archery deer hunter can tell you," he said.
As for rifle bear hunting, there will be a newly returning opportunity for hunters in one area of the state.
In years past, wildlife management unit 3A, which is centered around Potter County, had extended bear hunting. In a portion of the first week of the firearms deer season, hunters could also shoot a bear. Then that went away.
This fall, it's back, largely at the request of farmers. Ironically, it's a surge in the quality of whitetails in the area that drove things. Phil Lehman, representing the Tioga-Potter County Farm Bureau, said that when he moved to Potter County in 1977, a buck that carried 90 inches of antler was a trophy.
"Now, a 120-inch buck probably isn't even worth taking to the big buck contest," he said.
Lehman said the problem is many landowners — to keep those deer to themselves — have posted their property. That not only keeps out deer hunters, he said, but bear hunters as well. He asked for an extended bear season to combat that and commissioners agreed. In unit 3A, properly licensed hunters will be able to kill bears Nov. 29 to Dec. 2, the Wednesday through Saturday of the first week of deer season.
Six other wildlife management units — 1B, 2C, 4B, 4C, 4D and 4E — will be run under those same rules.
Three other units — 3B, 3C and 3D — will be open to bear hunting the entire first week of the rifle deer season, Monday through Saturday, Nov. 27 to Dec. 2. Four more — 2B, 5B, 5C and 5D — will be open to bear hunting the entire two weeks of rifle deer season.
Those four, of course, are the state's most densely populated in terms of people, around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. They shouldn't be overlooked for bears, though, no matter whether it's archery or gun season, Ternent noted. There's evidence to prove that. Allegheny County surrounds Pittsburgh. Yet, last fall, according to wildlife conservation officer Dan Puhala, it gave up two bears to archers. That was down from six the year before. One was a 253-pound female in Fawn Township and the other a 225-pound male in Richland Township. To show what's out there, though, he noted that a third bear, a 225-pound male, was killed by a vehicle the weekend before the statewide deer season opener. It was an unknown bear of sorts; it had never been involved in any nuisance situations, and so had never been captured or tagged.
Likewise, in southeastern Pennsylvania, on the fringes of Philadelphia, hunters killed bears in Bucks, Berks and Lehigh counties.
OTHER BEAR HOT SPOTS
Some of the real untapped hot spots for bears are the edges of their core haunts, Ternent said.
Mention bear hunting and everything thinks of driving to the "big woods" of Potter, Clinton and Lycoming counties, among others.
"The growth in the population has been most notable on the periphery, though," he said. "There are probably good opportunities to hunt bears close to home, no matter where you live in Pennsylvania."
Wildlife management units 2C, 2D, and 2E, all closer to the southwest corner of the state, and all marked by a mix of farms, woodlots and some larger state forests, are strong bear population centers, he says. Game Commissioner Tim Layton of Windber adds that the only thing missing most times are hunters. In Somerset County in unit 2C, he notes, bear nuisance complaints remain high, as do complaints about crop damage.
"We just need the hunters," he said.
The southwest produces some big bears, too. The largest killed in the state last year was a 740-pounder killed by an archer in Indiana County.
Also not to be overlooked are units 1A and 1B in northwestern Pennsylvania. Unit 1B is open to extended hunting,
Unit 1A, meanwhile, only gave up 34 bears last fall, but has plenty more to go around, to hear the tales.
One place there worth trying is Moraine State Park in Butler County. It's experiencing a bear boom. Randy Pilarcik, the commission's wildlife conservation officer for that part of Butler County, says Moraine accounted for all of the bears taken in his district last year. One was taken in archery season, the rest in the gun season. That's not to say there aren't bears in other parts of his district, he says. It's just that "the area in and around Moraine State Park has the highest density."
The area around Pymatuning State Park also could use a few bear hunters. They're causing grief there, says Jerry Bish, land manager in charge of the Pymatuning wildlife management area. Pymatuning is famous for its waterfowl, and the commission nurtures that by erecting and maintaining mallard nesting platforms, wood duck nesting boxes, goose habitat structures and more on state game lands. Recently, though, the region's growing black bear population has taken to raiding them.
Bears destroyed 37 boxes on game lands 69 and 122 in Crawford and Erie counties last year, says George Miller, regional land management supervisor for the commission.
The problem is new. Bears have long raided bluebird nesting boxes and similar structures on game lands elsewhere, Miller says. But bears damaging waterfowl boxes in the northwest is something more recent.
It's no wonder why.
"We never had bears," Bish said.
Unit 2A offers opportunities, too.
Traditionally, all of the bears taken in Westmoreland County have come from the mountainous Laurel Highlands area, in what is unit 2C. A large portion of Wesmoteland lies in 2A, though, and it's started producing bears.
Matt Lucas, the conservation officer in southern Westmoreland, says two bears were taken not on, but near, state game land 296, in the South Huntingdon area last fall. That's a first for the five years he's been there, Lucas says.
Traditional Bear Country
Of course, Pennsylvania's traditional bear country remains as productive as ever. The 10-county north-central region of the state — the "big woods" area with so many large tracts of state park and forest land and state game lands — accounted for 1,287 bears last year. That's about a third of the statewide total.
The northeast, region, meanwhile, which gives up some of the largest bears, was second with 858.
Both will remain productive, Ternent says. According to figures he provided, hunters in unit 2G in the northcentral killed 2.3 bears per square mile last year. That was tops in the state. Unit 3D in the northeast gave up two bears per square mile; that ranked second. Yet populations remains strong.
Unit 3D has an estimated 1.36 bears per square mile, in terms of population. Unit 2G has an estimated 1.29.
Both regions, meanwhile, continue to produce big bears. The northeast gave up two bears weighing more than 700 pounds last year. One came from Pike County, the other from Monroe. It also produced three weighing more than 600 pounds.
The northcentral, not to be outdone, gave up four bears topping 600 pounds.
In fact, it's hard to not be optimistic about your chances anywhere in Pennsylvania these days, so long as you do your homework.
He suggests hunters get out early, before the archery season, and look for bear scats, claw marks on beech trees, trails leading into and out of corn fields and fruit trees with broken branches. All are classic signs of bears being in the area.
"I'd pay attention to bear feeding habits, try to pattern where bears are coming to and from food sources, and set up and wait," he said. "If you do that little bit of scouting, figuring out how the bears are moving, you should have some good opportunities."