Starting Saturday, Pa. bear hunters will take aim at breaking 2019 record bear harvest

Pennsylvania may have an historic black bear harvest in the coming weeks.

This fall, thousands of Pennsylvania bear hunters are expected to swarm into the state’s woods.

Their goal will be simple — to harvest one of the approximately 20,000 black bears roaming the commonwealth.

The action starts Saturday with archery and muzzleloader seasons.

The hunters will try to break last year’s record bear harvest of 4,653.

The new and extended bear seasons that helped hunters set the record harvest last season are back this fall. In fact, an additional week of hunting has been added to the archery bear season, and the four-day general bear season, which starts on a Saturday (Nov. 21), will offer a day of Sunday hunting, giving bear hunters an entire weekend to pursue bears.

The statewide bear archery season runs from Oct. 17 through Nov. 7, while the bear muzzleloader season runs from Oct. 17-24. A special-firearms bear season runs from Oct. 22-24 for junior and senior license holders, active-duty military and certain disabled persons’ permit holders. 

The statewide general bear season will run Nov. 21, Sunday, Nov. 22 and Nov. 23-24.

“It’s hard to comprehend what’s happening in Pennsylvania bear hunting, especially if you can recall when the Game Commission was trying to resurrect the commonwealth’s bear population back in the 1980s and ’90s,” Game Commission executive director Bryan Burhans said in a news release. “But here we are, on the cusp of another fall loaded with bear-hunting opportunities and a robust bear population.

“Pennsylvania bear hunting has never packed as much widespread opportunity and excitement as it does right now. Today, bears inhabit most counties, providing closer-to-home hunting. But their populations also remain strong on their primary range in the northern tier.”

Licenses selling well: Pennsylvania hunters apparently feel the same way. Last year, the agency sold a record 202,043 bear hunting licenses. This year, bear license sales are 18 percent ahead of last year’s pace as of Oct. 9.

“Over the past three years, more than 10,000 black bears were taken by Pennsylvania hunters,” commission bear biologist Mark Ternent said in the news release. “And although that’s sounds like a lot, it’s the third time it’s happened in the commonwealth since 2003.

“Last year’s record bear harvest removed 20 to 25 percent of the state’s substantial bear population, but it isn’t expected to produce significant declines in bear numbers. We should have close to 20,000 bears statewide.”

Managing the bear population: The Game Commission said it expanded hunting opportunities in 2019 to manage bears more efficiently. Previous bear seasons, occasionally impacted by weather that limited hunter success, simply weren’t getting the job done, the commission said.

With a bear population hovering around 20,000 for several years — and with the potential to grow larger — the agency said it needed to increase pressure on the resource. A record bear harvest followed. 

The numbers: Last year’s record harvest broke the previous record harvest set in 2011, when 4,350 bears were taken. In 2018, hunters took a total of 3,153 bears – Pennsylvania’s 11th-best bear harvest. The only other year hunters took more than 4,000 bears was in 2005 when 4,164 were taken.

Last year, bears were taken in 58 of 67 counties and 22 of 23 of the state’s Wildlife Management Units.

The largest bear through all 2019 seasons is the 813-pound male taken with a rifle on the opening day of the general bear season in Smithfield Township, Monroe County, by Victor M. Vassalluzzo, of Kintnersville.

Lycoming County led all other counties with the harvest of 284 bears. It was followed by Clinton and Tioga counties, both with 267.

Harvests varied across the state’s slate of bear-hunting seasons. Hunters took 1,340 bears in the partially concurrent new muzzleloader and special firearms seasons; 1,629 in the general season; 1,117 in extended seasons; and 561 in the archery season.

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