Wildlife experts speculate on a number of reasons for the diminished number
In 2023, Pennsylvania hunters took 2,919 bears during the that year’s hunting seasons. That number is down from the 3,171 taken in 2022. Image by DSlight Photography
Pennsylvania is known for its bear hunting opportunities, but some are concerned that the 2023 harvest was the lowest it’s been in 16 years.
According to lehighvalleylive.com, wildlife experts are speculating on the reasons, saying the expanded bear hunting opportunities may be one of the reasons.
Over the years, the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) has increased its bear hunting opportunities to help manage the state’s growing bear population. The harvest numbers have climbed, on average, over the past 20 years. In 2019, hunters took 4,657 bears, the most in a single year. But, last year, the number dropped to less than 3,000 bears, which is the lowest number in 16 years.
The PGC website states hunters took 2,919 bears during the 2023 hunting seasons, which is down from the 3,171 taken in 2022 and the lowest harvest since 2007, when 2,362 bears were taken.
Hunter participation, weather, and food availability can cause numbers to fluctuate from year to year. Plus, hunters have had more opportunities to tag a bear thanks to the more liberal hunting seasons, the addition of a muzzleloader and special firearms hunt, and the expansion of archery season.
PGC Black Bear Program Specialist Emily Carrollo told lehighvalleylive.com that the PGC ended the extended hunting season opportunity in five Wildlife Management Units in 2023 because of overharvest concerns. Those WMUs had been offering extended hunting season opportunities since 2016.
“The intention of the extended season is to help harvest more bears to stabilize local populations,” Carrollo said. “These WMUs saw population declines over the last few years with the introduction of these early seasons, and it was decided the extended season opportunity was no longer needed to achieve management goals in those WMUs.
“Since 2019, the extended season harvest in these five WMUs averaged 375 bears per year… Thus, even adding the lowest total harvest from 2020 [223 bears] between these five WMUs to our preliminary season total of 2,919 for 2023, we would have a total harvest of 3,142 bears harvested throughout the state, which is very similar to [the previous] year’s harvest.”
Secondly, she said an abundant mast crop across much of the state provided the bears with plenty of food.
“Multiple research studies have found that during years when mast producing species are abundant/highly available on the landscape — like oaks here in PA — and are also highly productive during a season — like oaks this past fall — total harvest numbers are often lower than average,” Carrollo said. “It is believed this is because when natural food resources are low, bears are more likely to move greater distances on the landscape during the fall to find food.
“Bears are also in ‘hyperphagia’ during the fall, which is a critical time for packing on pounds for the winter den season, so bears are really focused on finding food during this time of the year. Thus, if bears are more frequently moving on the landscape to find food during poor mast years, the more likely they become to run across a hunter.”
“The PGC has always had one of the best harvest monitoring programs throughout the black bear range, and we are fortunate to know exactly how many bears are harvested each year — along with other information like gender, age, and size of all black bears harvested, which all goes into monitoring efforts,” Carrollo said. “Thus, we have great information on harvest trends for the last 40 years that helps us better understand the black bear population and how to structure harvest opportunities.”
“Black bears are a resource that belong to all Pennsylvanians, and I’ll always use the most relevant and updated data and research to make the most informed management decisions,” Carrollo said. “I do truly appreciate working with a species so many Pennsylvanians care deeply about, and I share that passion just as much.”