WILKES-BARRE – While the majority of input received by the Pennsylvania Game Commission opposed the changes made for this year's black bear seasons, the number of bear sightings throughout Pennsylvania means the recent trend of hunter success is likely to continue.
Beginning Monday, the newly established statewide, five-day archery bear season opens. This will be followed by a statewide, three-day firearms that features one of the most dramatic changes in year by the PGC board of game commissioners, opening the season, Saturday, Nov. 20.
Pennsylvania's firearms bear season will continue, Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 22 and 23, and the agency reserves the right to extend the season by adding Wednesday, Nov. 24. When the PGC held its final quarterly board meeting of the year here last month, executive director Carl Roe said the new seasons are expected to result in hunter success, even with the elimination of the concurrent bear/deer seasons held in recent years.
"Pennsylvania's bear population covers more than three-quarters of the state, and includes a number of world-class trophy bears," Roe said. "This has earned Pennsylvania recognition as one of the top states for bear hunters, and every year, we have a number of bears exceeding 500 pounds included in the harvest."
Since 1992, six bears with an estimated live weight of 800 pounds or more have been taken in Pennsylvania, and the possibility of another 800-pounder being taken by a hunter is always in play. Last year, the largest bear taken was a boar with an estimated live weight of 668 pounds in Jefferson Township, Dauphin County, by Ed Bechtel of Lykens. In all, 13 bears taken by hunters weighed 600 pounds or more, further illustrating Pennsylvania's status as a major bear hunting destination.
Two of those monsters were taken in Carbon County by Terence Burkhardt and Mike Wimmer, Jr., of Jim Thorpe in Penn Forest Township. Burkhart used a bow to kill a boar with an actual live weight of 654 pounds on the opening day of the firearms season just 65 minutes after Wimmer shot a boar with an estimated live weight of 654 pounds.
Last year's bear harvest of 3,512 is second only to the 2005 bear harvest, in which hunters took a record 4,164 bears. Other recent harvests were: 3,075 in 2000; 3,063 in 2001; 2,686 in 2002; 3,000 in 2003; 2,972 in 2004; 3,122 in 2006; 2,360 in 2007; and 3,458 in 2008 – meaning the last 10 years hunters have taken more black bears than in any other decade since the PGC began keeping bear harvest records in 1915.
"Conditions this year are favorable for another record harvest," PGC black bear biologist said Mark Ternent said. "Bear populations are up in many parts of the state relative to past years; hunter participation is expected to be good, based on the number of bear licenses being purchased; and acorns are plentiful, which tends to keep bears out of dens and active through the fall hunting season.
"About the only unknown is if we will have favorable weather for hunters on opening day of the firearms season. Weather can have a huge impact on the season's outcome, but so can fall food conditions.
"Our fall food surveys indicate that acorn production is exceptional over large parts of Pennsylvania this year. Even with good food conditions, preseason scouting will still be important."
This year, the preseason for the firearms season will be the archery season, meaning many bowhunters that see bear may return to those areas. In previous years, the archery bear season was limited to two days in specific wildlife management units.
As for the best locations to hunt, Roe reminded hunters that bears were taken in 54 counties last year, which was the same as 2008, but an increase from 2007, when bears were taken in 49 counties. Last year's top five counties all from the Northcentral Region – were: Clinton, 295; Lycoming, 280; Tioga, 217; Cameron, 214; and Potter, 181.
Information about bear populations by county is available on the PGC website at www.pgc.state.pa.us  by clicking on "Field Officer Game Forecasts." This feature contains wildlife conservation officer's perspectives and observations on game and furbearer trends in their respective districts to help hunters and trappers get closer to the action afield.
"Our field officers spend a tremendous amount of time afield, often in areas hunters and trappers are eager to learn more about," Roe said. "Their observations have value to hunters and trappers, so we decided to make them accessible to anyone who enjoys hunting and trapping in Pennsylvania."