A Good Bear Season on the Horizon?
HARRISBURG, Pa. – The potential for Pennsylvania black-bear hunters to set a new state record remains for a third consecutive year as hunters head afield on November 17 for the opening day of Pennsylvania’s four-day statewide firearms bear season.
Penn’s Woods has maintained a bear population of around 20,000 the past three years, but inclement opening-day hunting weather and other autumn oddities have helped bears elude the record numbers of hunters pursuing them the past two years.
Fantastic mast crops have spread bears out, making them harder to find. Late leaf-drop – occurring this year, too – also has provided bears plenty of cover to sneak about the Commonwealth.
Still, with cooperative weather, particularly on the opening day, Pennsylvania has a chance to overtake the state’s record 4,350 bear harvest set in 2011.
Even with one of the worst starts in history, bear hunters in 2017-18 managed a bear harvest of 3,438, which ranks ninth all-time. There were also some big bears in the harvest: 48 weighed more than 500 pounds.
“The best time to be a Pennsylvania bear hunter is right now,” emphasized Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “The bear population has reached unprecedented size and bears are now found in most counties. It’s no wonder record numbers of hunters have bought bear licenses in recent years.”
Pennsylvania’s best bear seasons have been supported by clear, cold weather, with a little tracking snow. But a significant ice, fog or rain, or a good dumping of snow during the season, can hold the bear harvest down. Hunters have a harder time getting to or from their favorite hunting spots, the bears are harder to see, and overall participation generally drops.
The number of hunters buying bear licenses this year is on pace to reach 170,000 to 175,000, which is where license sales have topped out the past few years. The record for bear license sales occurred in 2015 when 175,314 were sold.
More bear hunters is always good for bear hunting because their drives and movements regularly chase bears from the cover in which they prefer to hide. And once they’re on the move, hunters have greater opportunity.
But bears are great at sitting tight. It’s how they manage to become so big.
Two bears harvested in 2017 exceeded 700 pounds. Since 1986, there have been 32 bears recorded in the 700-pound weight class at Game Commission check stations.
But Mark Ternent, Game Commission bear biologist, believes Penn’s Woods hold bigger bears, at least 800-pounders.
“Pennsylvania bear hunters already have taken a few 800-pounders, and the odds remain good for it to happen again,” Ternent said. “However, it’s no small feat for a bear to reach that size when you consider it takes about nine years for a bear to reach 500 pounds.”
But when it comes to record bears, it’s not all about the weight. Pennsylvania is No. 2 among all states and Canadian provinces in the number of black-bear entries in Boone & Crockett Club records, which are based on skull size. Last year, 22 black bears taken in Pennsylvania were entered into the club’s records.
Pennsylvania’s has been a premier bear-hunting destination for decades. But in recent years, its popularity has grown, given the size of its bear population and the size of the bears hunters are taking.
But make no mistake, bears are a hard species to hunt. Their densities rarely exceed one bear per-square-mile, and bear-hunter success rates typically fall between 2 and 3 percent, Ternent noted.
The key to taking a bear is tied to scouting just before the season for areas with abundant fall foods and the fresh sign of bear activity. Conducting hunting-party drives through thickets also is effective.
Bears were taken in 57 of the state’s 67 counties in 2017. The counties with the largest bear harvests were: Lycoming, 252 bears; Tioga, 214; Pike, 193; Potter, 161; Sullivan, 156; Wayne, 156; Clinton, 153; Bradford, 112; Warren, 109; and Luzerne, 108.
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.
A complete list of requirements, check stations and their dates and hours of operation can be found on in the 2018-19 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, which can be viewed online at www.pgc.pa.gov. or purchased with a hunting license.
What you need
To bear hunt in Pennsylvania, a hunter needs a general hunting license, as well as a bear license.
Hunting licenses can be purchased online from The Outdoor Shop at the Game Commission’s website, but buyers should be advised that because bear licenses contain harvest ear tags, they are sent by mail rather than printed at home.
Buyers waiting until the last minute to purchase a bear license likely are better off making a trip to an authorized licensing agent and picking up a license there.
Licensing agents can be searched by county at the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.pa.gov, under the Hunt/Trap tab.
Bear hunters must wear a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on the head, chest and back combined at all times during the four-day season. The orange must be visible from 360 degrees.
- Hunters are required to carry photo identification while hunting.
- Plan your hunt and hunt your plan; it ensures someone knows where you are.
- Carry a cellphone in case of emergencies.
- Make sure you’ve thought about how you’d remove a bear from the woods if you take one.
- Use of baits and lures is illegal. If you find bait while scouting or hunting, report it to the Game Commission.
- Always carry a compass and map in the big woods.
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