Population Growth of Black Bears

Black Bear numbers have increased substantially in Pennsylvania, from around 4,000 in the 1970s to around 14,000 today. A dramatic growth has provided more opportunities for people to see bears, which is an experience many treasure, and bear hunting has greatly improved.

Today, almost three times as many  hunters are harvesting bears - with considerably less travel required to reach them - than 30 years ago. In 2004, hunters took 2,972 bears from 53 counties. This ranks as the fourth largest bear kill since record keeping began in 1915. Further, the state's six largest bear harvests have occurred during the past seven years.

This increase in bear numbers and range, however, has also brought an increase in conflicts with bears. Property damage, the likelihood of serious human injury, personnel resources within the Game Commission who respond to conflicts, and public's tolerance for further growth of the bear population have all been impacted by the increase in bears.

Nuisance bear conflicts have increased more dramatically in the northeast than probably anywhere else in the state. In the late 1990s, Wildlife Conservation Officers in the 13 counties that compose our Northeast Region were responding to about 600 bear complaints annually.  In 2000, bear complaints in the region climbed to 813; the following year they exceeded 1,000; and in 2002 they numbered more than 1,100.

Several initiatives have been implemented to help address this trend. For example: in 2003 a regulation was passed that makes it illegal to feed bears; a statewide database for documenting human-bear conflicts is now in place; and emphasis has been put on educational efforts to show people how to coexist with bears.  Finally, to lower bear numbers, for the past three years the bear hunting season in select areas of the Northeast and Northcentral regions has been lengthened to include the first week of firearms deer season.

Harvest Data for Areas Open to Extended Bear Hunting
Year Approximate size of area open to extended hunting Harvest in 3-day season Harvest in extended season Average harvest in same area before 2002 % change in harvest from pre-2002 level
2002 1,571 sq mi 270 173 265 67%
2003 2,500 sq mi 264 149 343 20%
2004 6,600 sq mi 466 547 562 80%

In 2002, this extended season occurred in Pike, Monroe and Carbon counties. In 2003, it occurred in WMU 3D, which overlapped the same general area. In 2004, it was expanded to also include WMU 4C and portions of WMU 3B, 3C and 4E in the northeast, and a small area north of Williamsport in Lycoming county. What have we learned after three years of extended bear hunting?

First, depending on the year, bear harvest has increased 20 to 80 percent in areas open to extended hunting. In 2002, 443 bears were taken from the Pike-Monroe-Carbon county area. The same area typically saw a harvest of 265 bears per year, when only a 3-day season was held. In 2004, approximately 1,000 bears were harvested in the 6,600 square miles open to extended hunting - an area where usually 547 bears were harvested per year before 2002.

Although harvest has greatly increased, it appears to have remained within acceptable limits. Agency personnel capture and eartag 500 or more bears annually, of which 20 percent usually get harvested in the 3-day season. The percentage being removed in areas with additional hunting opportunity has ranged from 23 to 25 percent, which is a rate that is believed to be safe in some bear populations.

However, the number of hunters taking advantage of this extended season is increasing, so we will continue to closely monitor the bear population and annual harvests. A record number of bear licenses were sold in each of the last three years. Approximately 2,500 hunters purchased a bear license in 2002 and reported hunting only in the extended season. In 2003, the number increased to over 4,500.

The extended season is intended to reduce bears where conflicts have significantly increased. Yet human-bear conflicts may not decrease immediately because nuisance bear activity is also influenced by natural food conditions, dispersal of young, human population trends, and suburban expansion. It may be several years before we can interpret a relationship between increased harvest and nuisance activity.

Moreover, some nuisance bears live in areas that receive little hunting pressure, which is one reason why the extended season was placed within the deer season. Deer hunters are more likely to look for game in areas that traditional bear hunters overlook, such as small woodlots or areas adjacent to homes. Thus, allowing deer hunters (who purchase a bear license) to take a bear may help remove some problem animals. Eighteen of the bears taken during the 2004 season in areas open to extended hunting had been captured before in nuisance situations.

The area open to extended bear hunting this year will include all of WMUs 3B, 3C, 3D, 4C and 4E, as well as the Rockview Prison. As in past years, the impact of lengthening bear season will be evaluated before setting the 2006 season.

Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Ave, Harrisburg Pennsylvania 17110-9797