It’s not exactly a good news, bad news kind of thing with Pennsylvania black bears.
It’s more of a good news, challenging news story.
The state’s firearms bear season opens tomorrow, Nov. 18, and continues Nov. 20 to 22 statewide.
There are plenty of black bears out there, too. The Pennsylvania Game Commission believes the population hovers around 20,000 for a third straight year. That’s the highest it’s been in a century.
The thing that could make this season challenging is food.
Having a lot of it out there – from acorns to apples – is good for black bears, said Mark Ternent, a commission biologist. It allows them to pack weight on before winter.
It’s good for hunters in a sense, too, he added, in that it keeps bears out of their dens and active.
There’s a downside in years like this, though, when the availability of food is widespread. The commission went so far as to say the state “has been smothered by hard and soft mast this past summer and fall.”
What that means is bears might be hard to pin down.
Travis Lau, communications coordinator for the commission, told of one camp that killed 25 bears last year across all the various bear seasons. The hunters move across various counties, following the bear sign.
So far this year, those hunters have largely been striking out, struggling even to find bears, he said.
“Now that’s anecdotal of course, but everybody’s talking about how much food there is everywhere. From acorns to hickories and what not, there’s just such an abundance, the bears aren’t concentrated,” Lau said.
“So this food situation might make it tough.”
The right kind of weather could help, said Bryan Burhans, executive director of the commission.
Traditionally, the best years in terms of bear harvest have three things: lots of bears, lots of bear hunters and the right kind of weather.
The bears are there and the hunters are, too. License sales figures show the state is on pace to have between 170,000 to 175,000 hunters, which will be close to the record. That was 175,314 in 2015.
More bear hunters means more bears stirring about.
“But all great bear seasons are supported by clear, cold weather, with a little snow if possible. It’s what really draws hunter participation and influences bear movements,” Burhans said.
Too much weather of the wrong kind can have the opposite effect.
Burhans noted that 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.
Recently, though, even in poor weather years, hunters have done pretty well.
Conditions were OK weather-wise last fall, if not great. Yet hunters still killed 3,529 bears.
That wasn’t a record by any means but it was the fifth-largest harvest ever.
Only 2011 – when hunters took an all-time single-season high 4,350 bears – and 2005 (4,164), 2015 (3,748) and 2012 (3,632) gave up more.
As for where hunters might find bears this fall, there are possibilities all over.
The 10-county north-central region of the state – the “big woods” area and heart of traditional bear country, what 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 said.
According to figures he provided, hunters in unit 2G in the north-central 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 remain strong.
Unit 3D has an estimated 1.36 bears per square mile, in terms of population. Unit 2G has an estimated 1.29.
Meanwhile, extended bear hunting is coming back to unit 3A, which surrounds Pottery County, because of how many bears it has.
That wasn’t going to be the case originally. Farmers successfully made the case for it to Game Commissioners.
Ironically, it’s the presence of big deer 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.
Bear numbers have surged as a result, he said.
But it’s not just there that black bears are doing well. The edges of their core haunts offer prime hunting, too, Ternent said.
“The growth in the population has been most notable on the periphery,” 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 said.
Game Commissioner Tim Layton of Windber said the only thing missing most times is hunters. In Somerset County in unit 2C, he said, bear nuisance complaints remain high, as do complaints about crop damage.
“We just need the hunters,” he said.
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.
Wherever hunters find them, some of the black bears that show up in harvests will undoubtedly be big.
Sixty bears topped 500 pounds in the 2016 harvest. The largest was taken by Dusty Learn of Home in Indiana County. He harvested a 740-pound bear at seven yards with bow-and-arrow.
But that’s not the upper limit for the species.
Ternent believes there are some out there going 800 pounds, at least.
“Pennsylvania bear hunters have already taken a few 800 pounders, and since there’s been no decline in bear health or body weights in recent years, the odds remain good for it to happen again,” Ternent said.
Those big bears score well in the record books, too. Pennsylvania ranks second among all states and Canadian provinces in the number of black bears it pouts in the Boone & Crockett Club’s record book.
Record bears are based on skull size. Ten percent of the bears in the Club’s book are from Pennsylvania.
So opportunities are plentiful.
If only the weather cooperates.
“Let’s keep our fingers crossed,” Burhans said.
Bob Frye is the Everybody Adventures editor. Reach him at (412) 216-0193 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.