Hunters up, harvest down for Pennsylvania black bears

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(The Center Square) — The black bear harvest declined to a 10-year low, according to state data, despite a dramatic spike in interest among hunters during that same time.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission announced that 2,920 bears were killed in the 2023 seasons, an 8% drop from the 3,171 bears taken in 2022. The recent high came in 2019 when 4,650 bears were killed by hunters, but most of the last decade has seen 3,100-3,700 bears taken every year.

The decline isn’t a result of bear hunters leaving the woods. More than 206,000 hunters bought bear licenses in 2023 — the fourth-highest sale total ever. Instead, commission officials say the drop is due to not offering an extended bear hunting season in a handful of wildlife management areas. Most of those lands are in the south-central part of the commonwealth, and one is in the northwest corner.

“I think this decrease in the overall harvest is mostly explained by the removal of the extended season in those five WMUs,” Emily Carrollo, the Game Commission’s black bear program specialist, said in a press release. “Obviously, there are many other things that affect a harvest season for any wildlife species. But most of it can be explained by the removal of those five WMUs.”

Though the totals have dipped, 58 Pennsylvania counties had a bear kill, with 1,100 taken by a traditional firearm and 700 via archery.

“The largest harvested was a 691-pounder taken in the extended rifle season in Porter Township, Pike County, by Mitchell Jonathan, of Quakertown,” the PGC noted. “But five other hunters got bears exceeding 600 pounds, and all of the top 10-heaviest bears weighed at least 576 pounds.”

The commission called that bear a “tremendous specimen.”

The biggest bear-hunting counties were Tioga (176), Lycoming (170), and Potter (155). Pike (142), Bradford (138), and Luzerne (135) Counties also had significant harvests.

In 2015, the commission estimated that 20,000 black bears live in Pennsylvania. In the commission’s draft five-year plan for 2024-2029, officials are looking to annually estimate population sizes statewide and by management area and identify critical habitat characteristics for black bears, as well as buying more forestland in “primary bear range.”

The commission is also looking to carry out a resident survey by summer 2025 to reduce human-bear conflicts and better educate the public. Bear numbers in Pennsylvania have increased steadily since the 1980s and officials expect the population to keep growing.

One way the commission tracks bears in Pennsylvania is by how many are killed in vehicular collisions. In 2020, a record 531 bears were killed on the commonwealth’s roads.