Pennsylvania has a chance to break last year’s record bear harvest of 4,653 in the coming bear seasons.
At first glance, it seems an unlikely possibility given so many bears were taken last fall. But even with last fall’s phenomenal harvest, there’s still about 20,000 black bears roaming Penn’s Woods. And those new and extended bear seasons that helped hunters set the record harvest are back this fall. In fact, an additional week of hunting has been added to the archery bear season, and the four-day general bear season, which starts on a Saturday, will offer a day of Sunday hunting, giving bear hunters the whole weekend to pursue bears.
“It’s hard to comprehend what’s happening in Pennsylvania bear hunting, especially if you can recall when the Game Commission was trying to resurrect the Commonwealth’s bear population back in the 1980s and ’90s,” noted Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “But here we are, on the cusp of another fall loaded with bear-hunting opportunities and a robust bear population.
“Pennsylvania bear hunting has never packed as much widespread opportunity and excitement as it does right now,” Burhans emphasized. “Today, bears inhabit most counties, providing closer-to-home hunting. But their populations also remain strong on their primary range in the northern tier. So, pick a place to hunt and go. It’s a great time to be a bear hunter!”
Pennsylvania hunters apparently feel the same way. Last year, the agency sold a record 202,043 bear hunting licenses. This year, bear license sales are 18 percent ahead of last year’s pace as of Oct. 9.
“Over the past three years, more than 10,000 black bears were taken by Pennsylvania hunters,” noted Mark Ternent, a veteran Game Commission bear biologist who currently serves as a regional wildlife biologist for the agency’s Northcentral Region Office. “And although that’s sounds like a lot, it’s the third time it’s happened in the Commonwealth since 2003.
“Last year’s record bear harvest removed 20 to 25 percent of the state’s substantial bear population, but it isn’t expected to produce significant declines in bear numbers,” Ternent said. “We should have close to 20,000 bears statewide.”
The Game Commission in 2019 had expanded hunting opportunities to manage bears more efficiently. Previous bear seasons, occasionally impacted by weather that limited hunter success, simply weren’t getting the job done. With a bear population hovering around 20,000 for several years – and with the potential to grow larger – the agency needed to increase pressure on the resource. A record bear harvest followed.
Last year’s record harvest broke the previous record harvest set in 2011, when 4,350 bears were taken. In 2018, hunters took a total of 3,153 bears – Pennsylvania’s 11th best bear harvest. The only other year hunters took more than 4,000 bears was in 2005 when 4,164 were taken.
“Surely it’s hard for some to imagine that Pennsylvania has such a vibrant black bear population,” noted Tom Keller, the Game Commission’s Game Mammals Section Supervisor. “But bears are incredibly adaptable; they can fit in almost anywhere that offers them cover and reliable food sources. It’s why bears are found in more places in Pennsylvania than any time in the Game Commission’s existence.”
A look back
Last year, bears were taken in 58 of 67 counties and 22 of 23 of the state’s Wildlife Management Units (WMUs).
The largest bear through all 2019 seasons is the 813-pound male taken with a rifle on the opening day of the general bear season in Smithfield Township, Monroe County, by Victor M. Vassalluzzo, of Kintnersville.
Lycoming County led all other counties with the harvest of 284 bears. It was followed by Clinton and Tioga counties, both with 267. Other top counties for bear harvests in 2019 were: Huntingdon, 180; Potter, 174; Luzerne, 163; Pike, 161; Bedford, 156; Centre, 146; and Warren, 146.
Harvests varied across the state’s slate of bear hunting seasons. Hunters took 1,340 bears in the partially concurrent new muzzleloader and special firearms seasons; 1,629 in the general season; 1,117 in extended seasons; and 561 in the archery season.
The new muzzleloader season led to a harvest of more than 1,000 bears, which was unexpected, Ternent said. But the agency will closely monitor the season in coming years to ensure its contribution to the total harvest doesn’t impact opportunity in other bear hunting seasons.
Slate of 2020 bear seasons
Bear hunting in the state got underway on Sept. 19 with early archery seasons in WMUs 2B, 5C and 5D. An early archery season also opened Oct. 3 in WMU 5B.
The statewide bear archery season runs from Oct. 17 through Nov. 7, while the bear muzzleloader season runs from Oct. 17-24. A special-firearms bear season runs from Oct. 22-24 for junior and senior license holders, active-duty military and certain disabled persons’ permit holders.
The statewide general bear season will run Nov. 21, Sunday, Nov. 22 and Nov. 23-24.
Extended bear seasons will be held in WMUs 1B, 2C, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 5A from Nov. 30-Dec. 5; and in WMUs 2B, 5B 5C and 5D from Nov. 30-Dec. 12. Hunters are reminded, they cannot harvest bears anywhere in the Commonwealth on Saturday, Nov. 28 and Sunday, Nov. 29, the first two days of firearms deer season. Extended-season bear hunting begins Monday, Nov. 30.
Odds and opportunities
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.
The key to taking a bear is tied to scouting just before season for areas with abundant fall foods and fresh sign of bear activity. Conducting hunting-party drives through thickets also is effective.
Muzzleloader and archery overlaps
A regulatory change adopted since last hunting season allows properly licensed bowhunters to carry muzzleloaders when any deer or bear archery or muzzleloader seasons overlap. The change allows archery deer or bear hunters to carry muzzleloaders during the Oct. 17-24 muzzleloader bear season, and use muzzleloaders during that time to harvest bears. Properly licensed hunters also may use muzzleloaders to harvest antlerless deer during this period since the antlerless-only muzzleloader deer season also runs from Oct. 17-24. The statewide archery bear season runs from Oct. 17-Nov. 7. The statewide archery deer season is now underway and runs until Nov. 20.
When carrying muzzleloaders during the October muzzleloader deer and bear seasons, hunters at all times must wear at least 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on the head, chest and back, combined, visible from 360 degrees.
Carrying firearms generally is prohibited while bowhunting. Aside from the exemption that applies during overlaps in the muzzleloader deer and bear seasons, holders of License to Carry Firearms permits may possess their permitted firearms while bowhunting.
Junior and Senior license holders, those with disabled person permits, and Pennsylvania residents serving on active duty in the armed forces, may hunt bears or antlerless deer with a rifle during the special firearms season from Oct. 22-24. These individuals may not hunt antlered deer during the special firearms season while in possession of a rifle.
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. In the October seasons, successful bear hunters should contact a region office for instructions on how to have their bear checked. Check stations also are open in select WMUs in the extended bear season, which overlaps with most of the firearms deer season in the WMUs where it is held, but dates and hours of operation vary.
Hunters are advised that some check stations normally open to inspect bears will not be open or might have their location changed. At least some check stations also will not allow spectators. Please watch for further announcements on the Game Commission’s website and through a news release.
A complete list of requirements, check stations and their dates and hours of operation can be found in the 2020-21 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, which can be viewed online at http://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. Neither an archery or muzzleloader license is needed in any bear season.
Hunting licenses can be purchased online from The Outdoor Shop at the Game Commission’s website, or issuing agents located in every county of the Commonwealth. But licenses purchased online cannot be used until they are received through the mail, because bear licenses contain harvest ear tags.
Licensing agents can be searched by county at the Game Commission’s website, http://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 general firearms 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.
• It is illegal to use baits and lures in bear hunting. If you find bait while scouting or hunting, report it to the Game Commission.
• Always carry a compass and map in the big woods.