Bountiful Black Bears
The record bear harvest of 2005 was the result of several factors: increased opportunity, increased participation, near-record bear populations and great bear-hunting weather.
In 2005, hunters set a record harvest by taking 4,164 bears in the regular and extended bear seasons. The previous record occurred in 2000, when 3,075 bears were taken.
The large harvest was the result of four factors: increased opportunity, increased participation, near-record bear populations and good weather.
There were more opportunities to hunt bear in 2005. A traditional 3-day bear season has occurred every year since 1986. Starting in 2002, however, six extra days of bear hunting have been available during the first week of firearms deer season in select areas of the state. The area open to extended hunting in 2005 was the largest yet, covering approximately 10,300 square miles of northeast Pennsylvania. In 2004, about 6,600 square miles were open to extended bear hunting.
In 2005, a record 139,122 hunters purchased bear licenses, up nearly 7,000 from 2004. Although a jump in bear license sales has occurred in part because of increased interest generated by the extended season, bear license sales were increasing before the extended season was offered. Participation in both the traditional 3-day season and the extended season are growing.
Bear populations were also at near-record levels in 2005. During the past five years, annual population estimates have ranged between 14,000 and 15,000. Moreover, an abundant supply of fall foods, particularly acorns, kept most bears active during the hunting season, unlike years when food was less available, causing bears to enter dens before hunting season started. Finally, last year's weather was ideal for bear hunting.
Bears were harvested in 52 counties. The largest bear was a 733-pound (actual live weight) male taken in Dunbar Township, Fayette County. That bear is presently ranked, according to skull measurements using the Boone & Crockett scoring method, as the largest bear taken by a hunter in Pennsylvania. While not yet confirmed by the Boone & Crockett Club, it is tied for the largest legally harvested black bear in the world. Only two other black bears — a skull found in Utah and a bear killed illegally in Pennsylvania in 1987 — have higher Boone & Crockett scores. Although ranked as the largest bear harvested in Pennsylvania, it was not the heaviest. In 2003, an 864-pound male was taken in Pike County.
Last year hunters took 3,354 bears during the 3-day season. Although a record, this harvest only slightly exceeds the prior 3-day record of 3,075 set in 2000, and is well within acceptable limits. Most years, 19 to 21 percent of the bears tagged for population monitoring are harvested in the 3-day season; in 2005 the rate was 21 percent (107 of 505 tagged bears). Age, sex and weight statistics also were typical of other 3-day seasons. The most noticeable difference was that harvest did not increase uniformly across the state. WMUs 2C, 2G, 3A, 3B and 4A, for instance, had dramatic increases, while others increased only slightly.
In the extended season, hunters went on to take an additional 810 bears. In some of these areas, the combined harvest reached levels considered to be too high. For example, in WMU 3B, about 29 percent of the population was harvested, based on harvest of ear-tagged bears. In WMU 4C, the rate was 43 percent, and in WMU 4E, a harvest rate could not be calculated because too few bears were tagged, yet harvest increased 149 percent over the year before.
Consequently, WMU 4C and portions of 3B and 4E will not be open during the extended season in 2006 as they were in 2005. However, WMUs 3C and 3D as well as portions of 2G, 3B and 4E will be open during the extended season.
Another change for 2006 is the addition of an archery bear season, in the central part of the state (2C, 2D, 2E, 2F, 2G, 3A, 4A, 4B and 4D) where extended hunting opportunities have not been available. Because this is the first archery season, and there is some evidence that participation could be significant, the hunt will be limited to two days, during the week before the traditional 3-day season. Any hunter with a bear license may participate.
More than 200,000 archers pursue deer in Pennsylvania, and recent surveys have suggested that 50 to 70 percent are interested in an archery bear season. We have little data to predict how successful archery bear hunters in Pennsylvania will be, but archery seasons have become a significant component of the bear harvests in West Virginia, Virginia and New York. Once we have a better understanding of how many hunters will participate and their rate of success, we may make changes to the archery bear season.
Areas of eastern Pennsylvania where the extended season has been open in recent years were not included in the archery season because we did not want to further increase harvest in those areas. Western Pennsylvania was excluded from the archery season because parts of those Wildlife Management Units have low bear densities. Keeping the archery area separate from the extended season area will also help in analyzing harvest results.
A 10-year black bear management plan was approved this year. The plan calls for dividing the state into five regions, each with a specific population goal, which will then enable us to adjust hunting opportunity in those regions, to raise or lower the bear population, depending on each region's goal. A critical step in the plan will be collecting input from residents about whether they believe bear populations are adequate, too small or too large, in order to establish population goals for each region.
- Mark Ternent, Wildlife Biologist