PGC: Bear season could be epic

Pennsylvania’s black-bear population has jumped from about 18,000 to about 20,000 bears, according to the state Game Commission.

The number of hunters buying bear licenses is on pace to break the previous record.

And the red-oak acorn crop statewide is one for the ages.

All of the pieces are in place for a historic bear season in Pennsylvania.

And things have gotten underway.

Pennsylvania’s bear archery season was Nov. 14-18.

Properly licensed hunters who still are in pursuit of a bear can participate in the four-day general season that opened on Saturday and also runs from Monday to Wednesday.

Extended opportunities to hunt bears during all or a portion of the deer-hunting seasons also exist in much of the state.

There’s been plenty of reason to get excited about bear hunting in recent years.

Pennsylvania’s eight largest bear harvests all have occurred within the past decade. The 2015 harvest was the third-largest on record, with hunters taking 3,748 bears. A whopping 68 of those bears topped the 500-pound mark, and 18 topped 600 pounds.

Bears were taken in 57 of the state’s 67 counties in 2015.

And this year holds as much promise as ever.

Dave Gustafson, who heads up the Game Commission’s forestry division, said red-oak acorns are abundant in “epic” numbers this year throughout the state, and bear sign has been heavy in the forested tracts where red oaks are producing.

“It’s the biggest crop we’ve seen since 2001, which was one of the most-abundant red-oak acorn crops in memory,” Gustafson said.

And white- and chestnut-oak acorns, as well as soft mast such as apples, also are available in some areas, he said.

Mark Ternent, the Game Commission’s bear biologist, said years where acorns are abundant tend to see higher bear harvests.

With food readily available, bears have less reason to hibernate before bear season, Ternent said. And they don’t need to travel as much to find food, which means the bears hunters locate while scouting prior to the season are likely to be found in the same areas come opening day, he said.

The number of bear hunters has been on the increase, with record numbers of licenses being sold in each of the past several years. And the early sales report showed 2016 bear-license numbers outpacing 2015 sales by more than 1,000 licenses.

That would mean that, once again, upward of 175,000 bear hunters can be expected to take part in the season.

And the estimated number of bears statewide also has increased since last year, due to a lower-than-anticipated harvest in 2014.

“If there are a record number of bears, a record number of hunters and a record acorn crop, we could be in store for a truly remarkable year of bear hunting,” Ternent said.

Pennsylvania’s all-time largest bear harvest occurred in 2011, when 4,350 bears were harvested.

Of course, topping that number will rely on many factors, including favorable weather during the firearms bear season.

But, without a doubt, a record harvest is within reach, Ternent said.

Given the high reproductive rate of Pennsylvania’s black bears, harvests could periodically approach 25 percent of the bear population without alarming declines, he said.

“In a population of 20,000 bears, that would equate to a 5,000-bear harvest,” Ternent said.

Of course, hunting Pennsylvania black bears remains a challenge, and harvesting one can be the accomplishment of a hunting career. Even in the year with the highest harvest rate, less than 3 percent of licensed bear hunters were successful.

But with record numbers of bears and hunters, Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough said the prospects of taking a Pennsylvania black bear are as good as ever.

“There’s no other hunting season in Pennsylvania that’s quite like our tradition-rich statewide bear season,” Hough said. “And while thousands of bear hunters will take home their trophies of a lifetime this year, all who participate can count on memories that will last a lifetime.”

Additional opportunities

To suppress conflicts that might arise from bear populations expanding into more inhabited parts of the state, an extended bear season exists in a handful of Wildlife Management Units.

In WMUs 2B, 5B, 5C and 5D, bear season is open concurrent to the archery, early muzzleloader and firearms deer seasons. And hunters in other WMUs also have a limited opportunity to harvest a bear during portions of the upcoming firearms deer season. Those areas include WMUs 3B, 3C and 3D (Nov. 28 through Dec. 3), and WMUs 1B, 2C, 4B, 4C, 4D, and 4E (Nov. 30 through Dec. 3).

A complete list of opening and closing days can be found on Page 44 of the 2016-17 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest issued to hunters when they purchase their licenses, or at the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.pa.gov.

All bear harvests must be reported to the Game Commission and checked.

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. Taking bears to a check station also might be required in WMUs where bear hunting is permitted during all or a portion of the firearms deer season.

A complete list of requirements, check stations and their dates and hours of operation can be found on pages 45 and 46 of the 2016-17 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest. Hunters should note that several traditional check stations have been closed or relocated this year, but a complete list of check stations can be found in the digest.

What’s Required?

To participate in bear hunting in Pennsylvania, a hunter needs a general hunting license, as well as a bear license.

Bear hunters also must follow fluorescent orange requirements. In the bear archery season, hunters are required at all times while moving to wear a hat containing a minimum of 100 square inches of solid fluorescent orange material if hunting in an area also open to fall-turkey hunting. The hat may be removed once the archer has settled in a stationary position.

During any bear firearms seasons, hunters must wear a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on the head, chest and back combined. The orange must be visible from 360 degrees and worn at all times while hunting.

Hunting licenses can be purchased online from The Outdoor Shop at the Game Commission’s website, but buyers should be advised that because bear licenses contain harvest ear tags, they are sent by mail rather than printed at home.

Buyers waiting until the last minute to purchase a bear license might be better off making a trip to an authorized licensing agent and picking up a license there.

Licensing agents can be searched by county at the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.pa.gov, under the “Hunt/Trap” tab.