Suburbs proving to be popular places for Pa's black bears
Bears have invaded the 'burbs.
Black bears — Pennsylvania's apex predator, capable of reaching weights exceeding 800 pounds, as big as the average grizzly — increasingly are living in some of the state's most populous areas. From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia to Scranton-Wilkes Barre, the animals are making themselves at home.
There was a time when that would have been unthinkable. Not now.
Three years ago, the Pennsylvania Game Commission kicked off an urban bear study. It went looking for animals living in the Johnstown, State College and Scranton-Wilkes Barre metro areas. The idea was to fit bears — however many that might be — with GPS collars, then monitor things like their home ranges and travel patterns.
The effort netted more than 75 city-dwelling bruins.
“If I'd have told you 20 years ago that we'd catch 75-some bears in those areas, you'd have thought I was crazy,” said Mark Ternent, the commission's bear biologist. “But bears are flexible enough to use what habitat is out there and can adapt even if that means living close to people.
“That doesn't mean they're in these urban areas in high numbers, but they are around.”
Growing resident populations
The bears aren't just passing through.
That was thought to be the case for a while. In springtimes past, whenever bears made the news for wandering through somewhere such as Murrysville, it was assumed they were young males, typically 1 1⁄2-year-olds, kicked out by their mothers, looking to find their own home and winding up in the suburbs almost by mistake.
Resident populations of bears now exist in almost every county, no matter how many people share the space.
“What I've noticed over the last couple of years is a lot of sows and cubs. They're not transient bears,” Dan Puhala, one of the Game Commission's wildlife conservation officers, said of the situation in Allegheny County. “There are certain areas — Fawn Township, Tarentum, Natrona Heights — where they are all the time.”
The situation is not unique to Pennsylvania. The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and New Jersey Division of Wildlife are — in cooperation with the Game Commission — studying their own growing urban bear populations. The New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit at Cornell University has been doing similar work.
What's the attraction?
Food most often is drawing bears out of the woods.
Bears are omnivores that have proven as willing to eat man-made sources as they are fawns, acorns and berries, said Chris Ryan, supervisor of research for the West Virginia DNR.
“We get over 1,000 bear complaints a year, and it's always tied to one of three things: bird feeders, pet food or garbage. Bears go where the living is easiest, and if they can find food around people, they aren't shy about taking advantage of it,” Ryan said.
That's problematic. While people often thrill to see bears, the animals can quickly become trouble. The Game Commission receives 1,000 to 1,500 nuisance complaints each year.
“We get pounded with those kinds of calls,” said Tom Fazi, information and education supervisor in the commission's southwest region in Bolivar, Westmoreland County. “Many times, solving the problem is just a matter of educating people about bears and bear behavior and explaining why they need to take the bird feeder in at night. But that's not always the case.”
That's where hunting can help, biologists hope. It's about the only thing, aside from collisions with vehicles, that kills Pennsylvania bears besides old age, Ternent said.
Getting the green light
Before this fall, hunting bears to control their population hadn't been much of a factor in urban areas. When Alvin Anthony of Buffalo Township shot a 157-pounder in Fawn last November, it marked the first a hunter had taken a bear in Allegheny County since at least 1949.
In an attempt to make such harvests more common, the Game Commission expanded bear hunting seasons in urban areas starting this fall.
In wild management unit 2B, which surrounds Pittsburgh, and the three units surrounding Philadelphia, the commission gave properly licensed hunters the green light to shoot bears just about any time when they might also be chasing deer. That amounts to months of opportunity.
Across most of the rest of the state, bear season is limited to a five-day archery season and a four-day firearms season.
Hunters have taken advantage of the extra time. Going into this weekend, they had shot three bears near Pittsburgh — one in West Deer in Allegheny County, one around Freeport on the Allegheny-Butler county line, and one in Export in Westmoreland County — and eight in the counties closest to Philadelphia.
“What's amazing is that, in those four units in all the years we've kept records prior to this one, we'd collectively had just 17 bears harvested all time,” Ternent said.
But are those extra opportunities enough? As any white-tailed deer manager knows, you can create all the seasons you want, but if hunters can't get access to where the “problem” deer are, those populations will continue to grow.
Biologists are trying to determine if urban bears might likewise be out of reach.
“We've shown in the past that when we modify seasons we will harvest more bears,” Ryan said. “But when it comes to nuisance bears, we've not known if they are going back to the woods at any point, where they are vulnerable to harvest, or whether they are staying within those city limits where hunters just can't get to them.”
Preliminary data across Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New Jersey suggests urban bears do move a lot.
Seth Mesoras, a wildlife conservation officer in Cambria County, said one of two bears that attracted national attention for wandering around the Pittsburgh Mills mall this past summer was originally captured and collared near Johnstown. Likewise, the bear shot this year on the Allegheny-Butler line had been trapped there and relocated to Blairsville, only to return, covering about 40 miles and swimming the Allegheny River to do so.
“Older bears, especially the males, they just have a huge home range. They're moving a lot more than maybe we expected,” Mesoras said. “They might be in your garbage one night and be 10 miles away outside the city the next.”
With the bear population at 18,000 and growing, and human urban sprawl continuing, bears figure to live among people long into the future. The Game Commission needs to be ready to deal with that, Ternent said.
“We don't want to kill every bear in places like Allegheny County. We still want to allow some to be around because people like to see them,” Ternent said.
“But what we don't want is for populations to become established and grow. These expanded seasons are meant to scale their numbers back. That will be best for people and bears both.”
Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-838-5148.