The numbers tell the tale when it comes to just how good black bear hunting opportunities are in Pennsylvania these days.
In the six and a half decades between 1915 and 1979, Keystone State hunters typically harvested 398 bears a year. That jumps to 424 if you exclude the four years – 1934, 1970, 1977 and 1978 – when the season was closed. Still, hunters didn’t harvest more than 1,000 bears in a single year until 1984, more than 2,000 bears until 1989 and more than 3,000 bears until 2000.
Compare that to the situation in more-modern times.
Hunters harvested more than 4,000 bears in a single year three times since 2005, two of those since 2011, with the all-time record of 4,653 coming in 2019. Nine of the 10 largest harvests ever occurred in the last 13 years, with the 2020 harvest of 3,621 bears ranking sixth.
Expect that train to keep on rollin’.
With lots of bears still on the landscape and this fall’s slate of seasons again big on opportunity, the potential is there again for another great season.
“We’ve got many, many black bears, including some of the biggest in the country, spread across the Commonwealth and within reach of hunters everywhere,” said Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “Plus, our various bear seasons give hunters the opportunity to pursue them in numerous ways throughout the fall.
“This is an exciting time to be a bear hunter. It’s no wonder more and more people are taking to the bear woods every autumn.”
Indeed, a record 220,471 people – 211,627 of them Pennsylvania residents – bought bear licenses in 2020. That was up from 202,043 in 2019, 174,869 in 2018 and, going back further, 147,728 in 2009.
Bear hunters this fall will be able to hunt in several distinctive seasons.
There is a statewide three-week archery bear season; a one-week muzzleloader bear season that offers three days of rifle hunting for certain classifications of hunters including juniors and seniors; and a four-day statewide firearms bear season that includes a Sunday.
Added to that are opportunities – some starting as early as September – to take a bear with a bow in a handful of Wildlife Management Units.
All of that was offered last year, too. But there’s also something new for 2021.
As in the past, many WMUs will allow bear hunting during the first – and in some units, even the second – week of the statewide firearms deer season. Unlike last year, though, when bears didn’t become legal game until the first Monday, hunters in 2021 will be able to harvest them on the opening weekend of deer season, both Saturday and Sunday.
“Pennsylvania has been a bear hunting destination for many, many years,” said Emily Carrollo, the Game Commission’s bear biologist. “I don’t expect that to change. Despite large harvests in the past, we’ve still got plenty of bears, and lots of big ones, out there.”
She recommended that hunters looking for bears focus first on finding food sources, ranging from apples to hard-mast crops like the nuts from oak, hickory and beech trees to standing agricultural crops. Then, she added, look for actual bear sign.
Of course, even in the best spots, not every hunter will fill a bear tag. Hunter success rates are typically around 2 or 3 percent.
But with so many bears in so many places, just being in the woods give hunters a better chance of filling a tag than at maybe any other time in the last century-plus.
Pennsylvania’s hunters took 3,608 black bears in the 2020 seasons. That was down from 2019’s record of 4,653, but still the second-largest harvest in the past five years.
Bowhunters – with two weeks to hunt rather than one, as in the past – took an archery record 955 bears. The harvest was 1,041 in the 2-year-old muzzleloader/special firearms seasons and 1,177 in the general firearms season. The harvest in the extended season was 435. Hunters in the early season took 13 animals.
Hunters took bears in 59 of 67 counties and 22 of Pennsylvania’s 23 Wildlife Management Units (WMUs).
Potter County led the state in bear harvest; hunters got 188 there. Lycoming County was next best, producing 186 bears, followed by Tioga, with 185; Clearfield, with 158; Monroe, with 152; Clinton, with 150; Elk, with 140; Luzerne, with 125; Centre, with 117; and Bradford, with 108. Pike County produced 105, Wayne 100 and Carbon 97, as well.
The largest bear harvested is the 719-pound male taken with a crossbow on Nov. 7 in Ayr Township, Fulton County, by Abby Strayer, of McConnellsburg. Hunters also took numerous other bears exceeding 600 pounds.
Opportunity and variety mark the 2021 bear seasons.
They began with archery hunting on Sept. 18 in Wildlife Management Units 2B, 5C and 5D. The season runs through Nov. 26 there, including Sunday, Nov. 14, and Sunday, Nov. 21.
Archery hunting is permitted in WMU 5B from Oct. 2 to Nov. 19, including Sunday, Nov. 14.
Archery bear hunting is permitted in all other WMUs from Oct. 16 through Nov. 6.
The statewide muzzleloader bear season runs Oct. 16 to 23, while the statewide special firearms season for junior and senior license holders, mentored hunters ages 16 and under, active-duty military and certain disabled persons’ permit holders runs from Oct. 21 to 23.
The general statewide bear season is set for Nov. 20 through 23, including Sunday, Nov. 21.
Extended bear hunting is allowed in WMUs 1B, 2C, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 5A from Nov. 27 through Dec. 4, including Sunday, Nov. 28.
Bear season in WMUs 2B, 5B, 5C and 5D from Nov. 27 through Dec. 11, including Sunday, Nov. 28.
Hunters can take only one bear during the license year.
Hunters who harvest a bear must have it checked by the Game Commission. How to do that varies, depending on season.
During the four-day statewide regular firearms season and the extended bear season that overlaps with a portion of the firearms deer season, the Game Commission operates check stations at several locations. A list of those is available on pages 37 (regular season) and 38 (extended season) of the 2021-22 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest.
Hunters who take a bear during any archery season or the October muzzleloader and special firearms seasons must contact the appropriate Game Commission region office for details on how to have their bear checked. Contact information for region offices and lists of the counties they serve are on page 3 of the digest.
In all cases, hunters are encouraged to use a stick to prop open their bear’s mouth soon after harvest and before the jaw stiffens. That allows agency staff to remove a tooth, used to determine the bear’s age.
Muzzleloader and archery overlaps
A regulatory change adopted by the Board of Commissioners in 2020 permits properly licensed bowhunters to carry muzzleloaders when any deer or bear archery or muzzleloader seasons overlap again this year.
This allows archery deer or bear hunters to carry muzzleloaders during the Oct. 16-23 muzzleloader bear season, and use muzzleloaders during that time to harvest bears. Properly licensed hunters also may use muzzleloaders to harvest antlerless deer during this period since the antlerless-only muzzleloader deer season also runs from Oct. 16-23.
Carrying firearms generally is prohibited while bowhunting. Aside from the exemption that applies during overlaps in the muzzleloader deer and bear seasons, holders of License to Carry Firearms permits may possess their permitted firearms while bowhunting.
Junior and Senior license holders, those with disabled person permits, and Pennsylvania residents serving on active duty in the armed forces, may hunt bears or antlerless deer with a rifle during the special firearms season from Oct. 21-23. These individuals may not hunt antlered deer during the special firearms season while in possession of a rifle.
License and orange requirements
Hunters who want to pursue bears in Pennsylvania need a general hunting license or mentored hunting permit, as well as a bear license.
Hunting licenses can be purchased online at https://huntfish.pa.gov or from issuing agents located in every county. A list of them is available at www.pgc.pa.gov under the “Hunt/Trap” tab. Licenses purchased online cannot be used until they are received through the mail because bear licenses contain harvest ear tags.
Bear hunters must wear a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on the head, chest and back combined at all times during the four-day general firearms season, or when participating in the muzzleloader or special firearms bear seasons. The orange must be visible from 360 degrees.
Hunters are also required to carry photo identification while hunting.
One other thing it’s recommended hunters do is go into the woods with a plan for how to get a bear out if they harvest one. Some bears get very large, but even smaller ones can be difficult for one person to handle.