I awoke Friday morning, March 24, to discover that a bear had raided our bird feeders during the night.
We were lucky. There was only minor damage to two of our many feeders. I had been warned. During a program that I had attended in Renovo early last month, Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Mark Ternent said to expect the first bears to come out of their dens in mid-March.
Males usually become active first, followed by females with 14-month-old cubs. Finally, in early to mid-April, females with newborn cubs bring their families outside.
As a precaution — since bird feeders are just “bear feeders” to a hungry bruin — we brought our feeders in the following evening. Sure enough, a bear triggered our motion-sensor spotlights shortly after 11 p.m. After failing to locate any food this time, the bear wandered over to my daughter’s house and caused a minor commotion over there. The bear knocked down a bird bath as it attempted to climb onto their deck.
Black bears are a wildlife management success story in Pennsylvania. According to Ternent, almost all of the eight species of bears in the world are in trouble or experiencing population declines. Black bears, on the other hand, are healthy throughout almost all of their range. In Pennsylvania, they are thriving. Ternent attributes that to the black bears’ adaptability, as well as sound wildlife management.
The situation was not always that rosy for the Pennsylvania black bear. In the mid-1970s, we had fewer than 3,000 bears in the Keystone State. No one knows the number for sure, or even a close estimate, because bear management was in its infancy. Only 223 bears were harvested in 1974, and 338 in 1975. Bear season was closed in 1977 and 1978. A single-day season was held in mid-December in 1979, and an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 hunters shot 736 bears. Something needed to be done to prevent a potential overharvest.
Intervention began in the 1970s but did not begin to show results until 1980. Bear season had already been shortened from one week to two days and then to a single day. In 1973, 25 mandatory check stations were established across the bear range. Under the direction of James Lindzey’s Cooperative Research Unit, five graduate research projects were conducted with bears at Penn State during the 1970s. A statewide tagging program began, which allows the PGC to accurately estimate the black bear population. Bears were trapped and transferred from northeastern counties to other areas of the state.
In 1981, hunters were first required to buy a separate bear license. This allowed the number of hunters to be accurately tallied and controlled, if necessary. Counties open to bear hunting expanded from 32 to 41 in 1982. The population had rebounded enough for a three-day statewide season to be held in 1986.
Research led by then-Pennsylvania Game Commission bear biologist Gary Alt discovered that Pennsylvania’s black bears grow faster, reproduce at an earlier age and have more cubs than bears in any other state. Advances were also made in knowledge about bear denning, daily movement and the dispersal of young bears.
Recent research was completed regarding urban bears. A vigorous tagging program of 800 to 900 bears per year continues under the direction of Ternent. As the population grows (and the number of bear complaints increase), the statewide bear season has been lengthened to four days — including a Saturday. Thirteen wildlife management units have extended seasons to help stabilize the bear population.
Thanks to an invitation from Pennsylvania Game Commission Northcentral Information and Education Supervisor Doty McDowell, my daughter and I had the rare treat and great opportunity to see firsthand some of Ternent’s bear research.
In mid-March, we visited a bear den on State Game Lands 25, in Elk County.
We watched as the mother bear was tranquilized in her excavation-style den and her two small cubs were gently removed. Ternent had to crawl down the burrow upside down to work with the sow. It was quite a sight to see only his feet sticking straight up in the air.
While Ternent checked the mother bear and refitted her radio collar, we had the “tough” job of keeping the 7-week-old cuddly bear cubs warm until it was their turn to be processed.
A short time later, the cubs were then processed and weighed — a 4-pound male and a 3.4-pound female. Blood samples were taken, they were fitted with metal ear tags, and they were placed safely back in the den with their mother.
Many people besides Ternent are involved with the bear research. This sow bear had been captured and fitted with a radio collar back in August 2016 by Elk County Wildlife Conservation Officer Jason Wagner. According to Ternent, this was a young bear who was likely having her first litter of cubs.
Looking back over the Game Commission’s bear harvest records, a low of 188 bruins were taken in 1915 — the population perhaps between 2,000 and 3,000 bears. Contrast those figures with the statistics a century later — 3,748 bears harvested in 2015, with the population estimated at 20,000 and still growing. This is a clear testimony to the success of the Commission’s bear management program.
“We are central to the eastern U.S. bear population,” Ternent said. “About 75 percent of Pennsylvania is forested, and we have more square miles occupied by bears than any other eastern state.”
According to Ternent, black bears live in more than 40 states and Canada — totaling about 750,000 animals. Pennsylvania has 3 percent of the bear population, 6 percent of the bear harvest, but a whopping 28 percent of the bear hunters.
Annual research, such as our bear den experience, separate bear licenses and mandatory hunter check stations will ensure that Pennsylvania’s bear population stays healthy and prolific for future generations to enjoy.
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com