PGC: Conditions right for record bear harvest

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s black-bear population has jumped from about 18,000 to about 20,000 bears.

The number of hunters buying bear licenses is on pace to break the previous record.

And the red-oak acorn crop statewide is one for the ages.

All of the pieces are in place for a historic bear season in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s bear archery season opened Monday. After that five-day season comes to a close on Friday, properly licensed hunters who still are in pursuit of a bear can participate in the four-day general season that opens Saturday then runs from Nov. 21 to Nov. 23.

Extended opportunities to hunt bears during all or a portion of the deer-hunting seasons also exist in much of the state.

Pennsylvania’s eight largest bear harvests all have occurred within the past decade. The 2015 harvest was the third-largest on record, with hunters taking 3,748 bears. A whopping 68 of those bears topped the 500-pound mark, and 18 topped 600 pounds.

Bears were taken in 57 of the state’s 67 counties in 2015. And this year holds as much promise as ever.

Dave Gustafson, who heads up the Game Commission’s forestry division, said red-oak acorns are abundant in “epic” numbers this year throughout the state, and bear sign has been heavy in the forested tracts where red oaks are producing.

“It’s the biggest crop we’ve seen since 2001, which was one of the most-abundant red-oak acorn crops in memory,” Gustafson said.

And white- and chestnut-oak acorns, as well as soft mast like apples, also are available in some areas, he said.

Mark Ternent, the Game Commission’s bear biologist, said years where acorns are abundant tend to see higher bear harvests.

With food readily available, bears have less reason to hibernate before bear season, Ternent said. And they don’t need to travel as much to find food, which means the bears hunters locate while scouting prior to the season are likely to be found in the same areas come opening day, he said.

The number of bear hunters also has been on the increase, with record numbers of licenses being sold in each of the past several years. And the early sales report showed 2016 bear-license numbers outpacing 2015 sales by more than 1,000 licenses.

That would mean that, once again, upward of 175,000 bear hunters can be expected to take part in the season.

And the estimated number of bears statewide also has increased since last year, due to a lower-than-anticipated harvest in 2014.

“If there are a record number of bears, a record number of hunters and a record acorn crop, we could be in store for a truly remarkable year of bear hunting,” Ternent said.

Pennsylvania’s all-time largest bear harvest occurred in 2011, when 4,350 bears were harvested.

Of course, topping that number will rely on many factors, including favorable weather during the firearms bear season.

But, without a doubt, a record harvest is within reach, Ternent said.

Given the high reproductive rate of Pennsylvania’s black bears, harvests could periodically approach 25 percent of the bear population without alarming declines, he said.

“In a population of 20,000 bears, that would equate to a 5,000-bear harvest,” Ternent said.

Of course, hunting Pennsylvania black bears remains a challenge, and harvesting one can be the accomplishment of a hunting career. Even in the year with the highest harvest rate, less than 3 percent of licensed bear hunters were successful. But with record numbers of bears and hunters, Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough said the prospects of taking a Pennsylvania black bear are as good as ever.

“There’s no other hunting season in Pennsylvania that’s quite like our tradition-rich statewide bear season,” Hough said. “And while thousands of bear hunters will take home their trophies of a lifetime this year, all who participate can count on memories that will last a lifetime.”

To suppress conflicts that might arise from bear populations expanding into more inhabited parts of the state, an extended bear season exists in a handful of Wildlife Management Units.

In WMUs 2B, 5B, 5C and 5D, bear season is open concurrent to the archery, early muzzleloader and firearms deer seasons. And hunters in other WMUs also have a limited opportunity to harvest a bear during portions of the upcoming firearms deer season. Those areas include WMUs 3B, 3C and 3D (Nov. 28 through Dec. 3), and WMUs 1B, 2C, 4B, 4C, 4D, and 4E (Nov. 30 through Dec. 3).

The latter includes the Juniata Valley.

Hunters who harvest a bear during the four-day general season must take it to one of the Game Commission’s check stations within 24 hours.

Taking bears to a check station also might be required in WMUs where bear hunting is permitted during all or a portion of the firearms deer season. Hunters should note that several traditional check stations have been closed or relocated this year, but a complete list of check stations can be found in the digest.

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