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Reflections in Nature: Bear harvest in Pennsylvania hasn’t always been high

There have been some large bruins encountered by hunters in 2021, with the largest estimated live weight of 722 pounds taken in Franklin County at the Letterkenny Army Depot. A total of 1,205 bear were killed during the 2021 hunting season. This year the bear harvest was the seventh on record, only two bear behind the sixth highest bear harvest in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s bear harvest has not always been this high.

When I became a game protector in 1969 the harvests were low. Efforts to save the dwindling bear population began in the 1970s. At that time, bears were hunted under a general hunting license. The population was estimated at fewer than 4,000 bears in Pennsylvania. The hunting season for bear was closed in 1977 and 1978, and a one-day only season was held in 1979.

These closures caused the hunter participation to go through the roof. At one point, there were 250,000 bear hunters in the woods. This caused the state to become worried about the future of the bear population in Pennsylvania.

To combat the large influx of bear hunters, a separate bear hunting license was created in 1981. Having to purchase a special license caused the number of bear hunters to drop and the state bear population exploded between 1980 and 2000. By the year 2000, there were approximately 15,000 bears in Pennsylvania, which now caused a different problem. Wildlife officers were overrun with bear complaints

As one of the commission’s bear trappers, I had a small part on this bear recovery population. We were required to trap and tag as many bear as possible each year. The commission used the information compiled to determine how many bear we had, the impact on the harvest, how many bear should be harvested and lastly, how to defend itself (sometimes in court) against the anti-hunting groups.

In this bear management program the commission tried to tag at least 600 bear a year. The tagged bear revealed some interesting facts, such as 40 out of 100 yearling male bear will be harvested during a single hunting season, while only six out of 100 adult male bear will be shot. The reason for this is that adult males are more nocturnal than yearling males. If adult bears are disturbed from their beds, they will only have a short flight and usually remain in heavy cover, while hiding from or sneaking around hunters. Yearlings are more apt to move about during daylight hours. If disturbed from their beds, yearlings will at times run long distances and also have a tendency to leave their protective heavy cover.

Males, more so than females, had a greater chance of losing their ear tags that were attached by officers. One reason for this was that the male’s tag was torn off while fighting another male bear.

Through tagging studies, the commission learned that, here in Pennsylvania, the weight of cubs has increased by 60% and also that Pennsylvania has the largest black bears in North America.

Tagging has revealed how young bears disperse from their mothers. Young females will usually stay in their mother’s home range, while juvenile males will move 15 to 20 miles and sometimes up to 100 miles before setting up their home territory. For this reason, mortality rates are quite high on juvenile males.

Bears live a long time in the wild. Of over 500 bear tagged at that time, none had died of natural causes.

Bears have a good memory about danger, traps and food supplies. However, some bears, just as humans, never seem to learn and become trapped repeatedly. On one occasion, a property owner watched as a previously tagged bear approached the trap I had set. The bear stretched its neck, sniffed at the trap, curled its lips and gave out with a woof, then circled the trap and walked away. This had been a bear that was previously trapped in a culvert type trap and remembered the incident. The bear wanted nothing to do with the trap, even if it meant passing up a bag full of donuts.

Once in a trap, the bear is tranquilized with a mixture of two drugs: rompum and ketamine. Although immobilized, the bear can still see and hear what is going on.

One half of all female bears will have litters consisting of either two, three or four cubs.

Occasionally, a cinnamon (brown) bear will be born, however, less than 10% of all cubs born will be a cinnamon. Twenty-five percent of cubs born in excavation dens (dens underground) usually end up drowning in spring run-offs. A female that is nursing cubs in a den will lose up to 32% of her body weight. The female bear’s milk is very rich, with 25% fat compared to a cow’s milk, with only 4% fat.

During the fall, a bear can add 30 pounds to its weight in a month’s time by just eating acorns.

For thousands of years, the Native Americans have lived with the bear on the North American continent. The bear was held in high esteem. Many myths and legends about the bear were passed down. Native Americans feared being mauled or killed by a bear. In some tribes, immediately after slaying a bear, the hunter would cut off the bear’s front paws and poke out its eyes, believing the dead animal could not hurt or see the slayer.

The Cree Tribe believed it was only proper to kill a bear with a club, axe or spear, using either a bow and arrow or a gun to hunt bear was thought to not be powerful enough to kill the bear’s spirit which was as important as its physical body, which was the object of the hunt. By using a spear, axe or club, the hunter had to be close to the bear, allowing the hunter to feel the animal’s death in a way he could not with a bow and arrow or gun.

Once the bear was dead, the hunter sat down and spoke solemnly to the bear: “Black food, do not be angry. Do not let other bear spirits be angry. I killed you only because I am poor and hungry. I need your skin for my coat and your meat so my family can eat. See how fine you look now? It is a good thing to be killed by me. When you go back to Memekwesiw tell him how I treated you.”

It would be illegal for today’s hunters to go after the bear with only an ax, spear or club.

When a hunter bags a bear with a gun, it is still quite a feat. I hope the modern day hunter that bags a bear with a gun remembers the old Native American’s feelings of respect for the bear and his spirit.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his podcasts on the outdoors at www.onemaningreen.com.

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