Closing in on record-breaking bear season
Pennsylvania has covered a third of the distance needed to set a state record black-bear harvest.
Through an early archery bear season in selected Wildlife Management Units (WMUs), two new October firearms bear seasons and the first week of a two-week statewide archery bear season, Pennsylvania hunters took a preliminary harvest of 1,540 bears. A statewide four-day firearms bear season is set to start Nov. 23, and two extended bear seasons of varying lengths in selected WMUs start Nov. 30.
Last year, hunters took a total of 3,153 bears – Pennsylvania’s 11th best bear harvest – in an early archery bear season in selected WMUs, a shorter statewide archery season, the statewide firearms and extended seasons in selected WMUs. Taking as many bears in subsequent weeks would topple the current record bear harvest of 4,350 set in 2011.
“Last year, was the 11th best bear harvest in state history, but it also was the lowest bear harvest over the past 11 years,” noted Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “Bad breaks with the weather on peak hunting days held the harvest back.
“But if Pennsylvania has good hunting weather on peak hunting days in the coming general firearms and extended bear seasons, and hunter productivity remains as it has been in recent years, the state’s bear hunters could set a new state record.”
Penn’s Woods has maintained a substantial bear population of about 20,000 the past four years, despite removing more than 17,000 bears from the statewide population over the past five years. That the average annual harvest over the past five years has been about 3,500 bears suggests taking at least another 3,000 to set a new state record in the ongoing archery and coming firearms bear seasons is a realistic possibility.
“Surely it’s hard for some to imagine Pennsylvania has such a vibrant black bear population,” noted Matt Lovallo, 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.”
Last year, bears were taken in 60 of 67 counties. Additionally, 70 bears weighing 500 pounds or more, including 20 weighing 600 pounds or more and two that topped 700 pounds, were part of the 2018 harvest. And the possibility of even larger bears remains.
“Pennsylvania bear hunters already have taken a few 800-pounders, and the odds remain good for it to happen again,” Lovallo 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.
For the second consecutive year, 27 bears, including five taken with archery tackle, were added to Pennsylvania’s Big Game Records book in 2019, according to Bob D’Angelo, who coordinates the state’s program.
All but 10 of those bears also qualified for entry into Boone & Crockett Club records.
A bear qualifies for the state book if the combined length and width of its skull is at least 19 inches if taken with a firearm or 17 inches if taken with archery tackle.
Boone & Crockett Club has a 20-inch minimum entry requirement.
The black bear’s tenacity to persevere in a state with 12 million residents and amidst increasing hunting pressure is what compelled the Game Commission earlier this year to double the number of statewide bear-hunting days, creating the state’s lengthiest bear-hunting opportunity since the 1930s.
“It’s the largest suite of bear-season changes ever approved in a single year,” noted Lovallo. “In most of the state, we’re going from 14 or 16 days of bear hunting to 32, from three Saturdays to seven, and we started hunting bears almost two weeks earlier.”
Pennsylvania’s best bear general firearms seasons have been supported by clear, cold weather, with a little tracking snow. Significant icing, rain or fog, or good dumping of snow during the season, can hold the bear harvest down because hunters have a harder time getting to or from their favorite hunting spots, the bears are harder to see, and overall participation generally drops.
“If you haven’t bought your bear license yet and you’d like to be afield to hopefully help set the next Pennsylvania bear harvest record, there’s still time,” emphasized Burhans. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity, a chance to help make history. Don’t miss it!”
Through Nov. 3, 169,708 bear licenses were sold. In recent years, annual bear license sales have topped out between 170,000 to 175,000. In the 2018-19 license year, 174,869 bear licenses were sold. The record for bear license sales occurred in 2015 when 175,314 were sold.
More bear hunters are 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.
Pennsylvania 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 a fresh sign of bear activity. Conducting hunting-party drives through thickets also is effective.
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 2019-20 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, 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, 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.