Hunters hope to bear down, down bear, when season opens Nov. 17
Big game hunters all across the Keystone State are set to grin and bear it come Saturday, Nov. 17 – that would be the day when black bears become fair game for firearms hunters statewide. How many Pennsylvania hunters hope to bag a bruin this season you ask? The number of hunters buying bear licenses this year should reach 170,000 to 175,000, which is about where license sales have topped out the past few years. The record for bear license sales occurred in 2015 when 175,314 were sold. So the sales number has remained fairly consistent over the past few years. A resident bear license sells for $16.90; non-resident, $36.90. Full disclosure: I didn’t purchase a bear license again this year, just another thing that makes me “unbearable.”
Bears tend to be elusive and reclusive, so when it comes to bear hunters, the more the merrier. More bear hunters working together in the field heightens their chances for success since organized drives and movement often serve to chase bears from the cover in which they prefer to hide. Bears on the move provide hunters with greater opportunity. It’s estimated that Pennsylvania is home to around 20,000 bears, a population consistent over 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,” Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans proclaimed. “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. 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 encounter.
But make no mistake, bears are a tough species to hunt. Their densities rarely exceed one bear per-squaremile, and bear-hunter success rates typically fall between a measly 2 and 3 percent, according to Ternent. 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.
Bears were taken in 57 of the state’s 67 counties last year. 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.
The regular statewide firearms season ,which runs through Nov. 21, follows the statewide archery season which ran from Oct. 29 through Nov. 3. Bear hunters here in Wildlife Management Units 5C and 5d (and in 5B near Pittsburgh) may continue to hunt bears with archery gear through Nov. 24 in a season that opened back on Sept. 15. An extended season for black bears in WMUs 2B, 5B, 5C and 5D will run from Nov. 26-Dec. 8; an extended season in WMUs 3A, 3B, 3C and 3D, from Nov. 26-Dec. 1; an extended season in WMUs 1B, 2C, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 5A from Nov. 28Dec. 1.