Conditions are gelling for a memorable year

An abundance of fall foods will have a huge black-bear population on the move as hunters head out Nov. 18 for the opening day of Pennsylvania’s four-day statewide firearms bear season.

Penn’s Woods has been smothered by hard and soft mast this past summer and fall. Leaf-drop also was delayed by uncommonly warm weather into early November. Combined, these conditions have given bears reasons to stay out of dens, and plenty of cover to sneak about the Commonwealth.

With cooperative weather, particularly on the opening day, Pennsylvania is poised to take a run at topping the 2016 bear harvest of 3,529, which ranks as the state’s fifth best. Or maybe the harvest will be even higher.

“It’s an exciting time to be a Pennsylvania bear hunter,” emphasized Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “The population is thriving and there are some real trophies on the loose.

“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. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!”

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.

The Game Commission estimates Pennsylvania’s bear population at around 20,000, a high-water mark the population has held for the past two seasons, despite substantial harvests. In 2015, hunters took 3,748 bears, the third-best harvest ever.

Pennsylvania’s all-time largest bear harvest occurred in 2011, when 4,350 bears were harvested. It was the first year the current four-day statewide firearms bear season format was used.

The number of hunters buying bear licenses is on pace to reach 170,000 to 175,000, which is where license sales have topped out the past two years. The record for bear license sales occurred in 2015, when 175,314 were sold.

More bear hunters is always good for bear hunting, because hunters afield will keep bears stirring about.

Sixty bears topped 500 pounds in the 2016 harvest. The largest was taken by Dusty Learn, of Home. He harvested his 740-pound bear at seven yards with bow-and-arrow.

But Mark Ternent, Game Commission bear biologist, believes Penn’s Woods hold bigger bears, at least 800-pounders.

“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.

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 it’s not all about the weight. Pennsylvania is No. 2 among all states and Canadian provinces in number of black bear entries in Boone & Crockett Club records, which are based on skull size. Ten percent of those book bears were taken in Pennsylvania.

The Commonwealth’s international standing as a premier bear hunting destination annually draws hunters from throughout North America and beyond. A population of 20,000 bears will do that.

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, Ternent noted.

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 58 of the state’s 67 counties in 2016. The counties with the largest bear harvests were: Lycoming County, 243 bears; Clinton County, 220; Tioga, 169; Potter, 149; Warren, 131; and Somerset, 116.

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