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.