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Numbers indicate state could be in for record numbers in bear season

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Exceptionally large bears, like this 529-pound animal harvested in northcentral Pennsylvania a few years ago, are more common than might be expected. The state produces dozens weighing in excess of 500 pounds every hunting season.

Better get those scales ready.

Pennsylvania’s statewide general bear season opens Saturday and continues Monday through Wednesday of next week.

Big things are expected.

Four factors typically influence the size of the harvest: bear numbers, hunter numbers, and availability of food and weather, said Mark Ternent, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s bear biologist.

Going into this season, three of those are looking good.

The bear population is at an all-time high of about 18,000, the number of bear hunters is expected to hit a record 170,000 or so by opening day, and a “bumper” crop of acorns will have bears out and about throughout the season.

All that, plus the fact hunting will extend into the first week of deer season in some new wildlife management units this fall, means the record harvest of 4,350 set in 2011 could be toppled.

“The pieces are all in place for yet another banner year of bear hunting in Pennsylvania,” commission executive director Matt Hough said.

“Only time will tell if a record number of hunters will bring about a record harvest.”

And yet, if that comes to pass, it might not be the most impressive thing about the season.

Pennsylvania always gives up lots of bears.

Since 2009, it has produced three of its five largest harvests, and more bears than all of the 31 other states that offer hunting except Wisconsin.

It’s the size of some of those animals that’s really special.

Of the 18,094 bears taken by hunters between 2009 and 2013, 265 — about 1.5 percent — weighed at least 500 pounds. Thirty-seven topped that benchmark in 2009 and 2010, along with 88 in 2011, 45 in 2012 and 58 in 2013.

That’s not all.

The heaviest bear taken in 2010 had an estimated live weight of 875 pounds.

Records show there has been one heavier black bear in the world, an 880-pounder killed in North Carolina in 1998.

Two other bears taken since 2009 went 772 pounds. Hunters also got ones going 767, 746, 734, 733 (twice), 729, 714, 709 and 706 (twice) pounds, and at least 29 more topping 600 pounds.

That’s impressive when you consider that, across the species’ range, “bear hunters consider a large bear to be anything over 350 pounds,” said Dan Kaminski, assistant big game and large carnivore ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Ternent isn’t surprised Pennsylvania is producing such giants, though.

The number of big bears is reflective of the size of the overall population, how much food is available and longevity, he said.

“We always seem to do pretty well on those fronts,” Ternent said.

Forty-six of the state’s 67 counties produced at least one bear topping 500 pounds since 2009. Eleven produced at least 10.

Nine stand out.

In northcentral Pennsylvania, the five contiguous counties of Potter, Clinton, Lycoming, Tioga and Sullivan gave up 68 bears of at least 500 pounds since 2009, or 26 percent of the overall total.

The northeastern counties of Wayne, Pike, Monroe and Carbon produced 56, or 21 percent.

That latter cluster was far and away tops for really mammoth bears.

Twenty of the 29 topping 600 pounds, seven of the nine topping 700 and the one over 800 came from there.

Quality habitat and easy living are the reasons, Ternent said.

Once thought of as a species that needed wilderness to survive, bears “do pretty well around people,” he said.

In the Poconos, where some counties saw human population gains of 50 percent between 2000 and 2010, their proximity to man is actually helping them thrive, he added.

“There are some bears in the northcentral part of the state that don’t know what a bird feeder is, that don’t know what a garbage can is. There aren’t too many bears in the Poconos you can say that about,” Ternent said.

Many of those well-fed bears are living to old ages, too.

That’s critical for reaching massive weights.

Unlike females, which stop growing at about age 3, when the nutritional needs of being pregnant or caring for cubs take precedence, male bears pack on the pounds up through age 9, which is when they usually first hit the 500-pound mark, Ternent said. They’ll maintain that weight as long as they can stay alive.

A landscape that’s rough on hunters helps many do just that in the Poconos.

“The blueberry swamps in that area are great for giving bears a place to hole up. They’re tough. Only the most diehard hunters really venture in there,” Ternent said.

“When you have to wear hipboots to go bear hunting, you know you’re trying hard.”

If there’s one caution Ternent would offer hunters seeking a trophy, it’s that comparing one county to another to determine which is more likely to give up a 500-pound bear is not always an apples-to-apples proposition.

“But that’s a good start,” Ternent said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

Article by Bob Frye,
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