Pennsylvania’s statewide bear hunting season opens tomorrow and will continue (Sunday excepted) through Wednesday, Nov. 21. We are fortunate here to share the Laurel Highlands with a growing population of black bears. That couldn’t always be said. Bears were exterminated from this region around 1900 and for the next 90 years only the occasional wanderer straggled through. I recall a photo that appeared in this paper in the mid-1960s of a bear killed by a car on Rte. 711 east of Connellsville. Back then, one unfortunate bear was big news. Today, hunters tag between 65 and 100 bears every year in Fayette County alone.
Extensive knowledge about black bears is one reason we have abundant bears again. Worldwide, not many wildlife species have been so intensively studied as the black bears of Pennsylvania. Game Commission regulations require that every bear killed by a hunter be taken to a check station for examination (check station locations are available on the Game Commission website), which includes, weighing, sex and age determination, and recovery of tracking tags or collars. Outside the hunting season, every bear trapped and relocated for causing a nuisance in a farmer’s sweet corn or a homeowner’s garbage is marked with a lip tattoo and ear tags. Still more bears are live-trapped for research purposes, fitted with a radio-transmitter and released so their movements can be tracked. Female bears are followed to their winter dens, where the bear is anesthetized, and her cubs weighed, sexed, ear-tagged then tucked back beside their mother’s warm belly. Data gathered through these methods is available on 65,000 individual Pennsylvania bears studied since the mid-1970s.
Black bears inhabit a wide range of habitats, including forest, swamp, tundra, grassland and desert from Alaska to Florida. On a visit to the National Bison Range in Montana last summer, I was surprised to see a sow black bear and three cubs on open grassland before I ever saw a bison. In the eastern states they are most abundant along the forested Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains, southwestern Pennsylvania included.
Pennsylvania bears tend to reach larger average size than black bears elsewhere, likely due to diverse natural foods, agricultural crops interspersed with woodland, and occasional raids on garbage around homes. By age two, males average 240 pounds and females 180. Bears continue to gain bulk throughout life and some males here have exceeded 800 pounds. Bears of this size have also reached impressive age — 12 to nearly 20 years. It is amazing to think of a bear eluding hunters through that many seasons. Based on skull measurements, one of the largest black bears ever taken legally by a hunter in North America was killed in Dunbar Township, Fayette County in 2005.
Not only has the bear population grown, it’s expanded into new territory. In the 1980s the Game Commission began releasing bears trapped in northern Pennsylvania, where they remained common, into good habitat in the Laurel Highlands. By the early 1990s, hunters began to take a bear or two every year from Fayette County, and the population has grown steadily since. Last year, a bear was taken during the hunting season in Greene County, the first bear killed there since record-keeping began.
Wildlife managers agree it is necessary to hunt black bears in order to minimize conflicts with people. In a survey on attitudes toward bears conducted for the Game Commission, 40 percent of respondents said they were comfortable having bears in their county, but not in their township. Another 24 percent said they accepted bears in their township, but not around their home. Only 15 percent of respondents said they were comfortable having bears in their backyard. Pennsylvania residents expressed strong support for managing bear populations through hunting (79 percent). Only 14 percent opposed the concept of bear hunting.
Black bears had no protection in Pennsylvania until 1905 when the first hunting season was established. Before that, people could kill bears at any time and most likely never missed a chance. Today the general bear season is short — four days — but the Game Commission has begun offering more flexible bear hunting opportunities, especially in more urbanized places, where bears and people are most likely to conflict. In most of Allegheny County, for example, it has been legal to hunt bears this year with bow and arrow since mid-September. And a special muzzleloader season was offered there in mid-October. Still, a hunter may take only one bear per year, regardless of season hunted.
The Game Commission’s monitoring of bears and bear hunting is so precise that you can track the bear harvest day-by-day as it happens. Seek out “Black Bear” on the Commission’s website (www.pgc.pa.gov), then go to “Bear Check Station Data.” The page displays a map showing every township in the state, and the accumulating bear kill. Five bears were taken in Fayette County during the statewide archery season (Oct. 29-Nov. 3), from the townships of Springhill, Georges, North Union and Wharton. The map will change rapidly beginning tomorrow when the general season opens. Game Commission officials expect between 3,000 and 4,000 bears to be taken statewide.
One unfortunate fact plagues the otherwise successful black bear. Mange is widespread and increasing, including in Fayette County. Mange is caused by an infestation of sarcoptic mites that burrow beneath the skin, causing it to itch and weakening hair follicles. The infected bear then rubs against trees and rocks for relief and the hair falls out. Badly infected bears become emaciated and weak. Mange is spread through direct bear-to-bear contact, but bears are not highly social.
They seldom have direct contact except between sows and their litters, and during the mating season. So, biologists believe mange is spread through artificial feeding, which congregates bears in close contact they would otherwise never experience. Feeding bears in Pennsylvania is illegal and discouraged, for the health of the bears and because it can jeopardize human safety.
Next time you see a bear, enjoy the experience (unless it has mange, which is not pleasant to see). Science and sound wildlife management make such encounters possible.
Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.