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If Mother Nature cooperates, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is reporting that the state may enjoy a record black-bear harvest this year.

The opening day of Pennsylvania’s four-day statewide firearms bear season is Saturday, Nov. 17.

According to the Game Commission, Penn’s Woods has maintained a bear population of around 20,000 the past three years. Inclement opening-day hunting weather and other autumn oddities, however, have helped bears elude the record number of hunters pursuing them the past two years. During that period, fantastic mast crops have spread bears out, making them harder to find. A late leaf-drop — occurring this year, too — also has provided bears plenty of cover.

Still, with cooperative weather, particularly on the opening day, the Game Commission is predicting that Pennsylvania hunters have a chance to overtake the state’s record harvest of 4,350 bears 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, including 48 that weighed more than 500 pounds.

“The best time to be a Pennsylvania bear hunter is right now,” Game Commission executive director Bryan Burhans said in a news release. “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.”

Clear, cold weather an asset: 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. When 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 reports that the number of hunters buying bear licenses this year is on pace to reach 170,000 to 175,000, which is where license sales have topped out the past few years. The record for bear license sales occurred in 2015, when 175,314 were sold.

More hunters in the field typically leads to a better bear harvest because the drives and movements of hunters regularly chase bears from the cover in which they prefer to hide. Once the bears are on the move, hunters have greater opportunity.

Bears over 800 pounds could be harvested: 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. However, Mark Ternent, the Game Commission bear biologist, believes Penn’s Woods hold bigger bears.

“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.”

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.

Bears were taken in 57 of the state’s 67 counties in 2017. 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.

Information for this story was provided by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

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