Bears populate unit 2A, but hunters scarce so far
Might this finally be the year?
Pennsylvania's five-day statewide archery black bear season starts Monday and is followed immediately by a four-day statewide firearms season. Chances are hunters will do well.
Last year's harvest was the third highest in state history, totaling 3,632. It came on the heels of a 2011 harvest of 4,350 bears, which is the all-time record.
There's little reason to believe that, with a bear population estimated between 16,000 and 18,000 and climbing, the kill won't likewise be a big one this fall.
“If we broke the (bear harvest) record again this year, that wouldn't break my heart,” said Pennsylvania Game Commission executive director Carl Roe. “We've got a lot of bears.”
“In Pennsylvania, there's never been a better time to hunt bears,” said Mark Ternent, the commission's bear biologist.
Almost every piece of the state is contributing to that boom.
Twenty-one of the state's 23 wildlife management units surrendered bears to hunters last year. One of the exceptions was unit 5D around Philadelphia.
That makes sense.
But the other was unit 2A, in Pennsylvania's extreme southwestern corner. It takes in all of Greene County, most of Washington, the western half of Fayette, and chunks of Allegheny, Beaver and Westmoreland.
“Hunters ought to be harvesting bears in 2A,” Ternent said. “We know there are bears out there. We know of sightings of females with cubs. It's not that they aren't available.”
The unit is, in fact, surrounded by bears.
Wildlife management unit 2C, which lies due east, gave up 268 bears last year. Even unit 2B to the north, surrounding Pittsburgh, gave up six.
Bear populations also are well established to the south of the unit in West Virginia's Preston and Monongalia counties.
They are not as dense in the Mountain State's pandhandle counties to 2A's west, but even there hunters take some pretty regularly, said Paul Johansen, assistant chief of game management for the Division of Natural Resources.
“We're not looking to expand bear populations to any great level in that panhandle area because it's got too many people. But if the habitat is suitable and humans will tolerate them, bears are going to establish new range on their own,” he said. “That's what we've seen in that panhandle region and all across Mid-Appalachia.”
Pass through the panhandle and go a little further west, and you'll even find bears established in Ohio.
The species is still rare enough to be considered state endangered.
But the majority of bears that live in the Buckeye State full-time inhabit its southeastern corner and likely came from Pennsylvania and West Virginia by crossing the Monongahela River, said Suzie Prange, a wildlife research biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources
“We do have indications of male bears staying in that area for two or three years now. That must mean there are females there, too, for them to be staying that long,” Prange said.
“So I'm sure we must have some resident bears in that area. Not many. But there are a few.”
So with bears to the north, south, east and west of unit 2A, why hasn't it given up any to hunters?
“No one really hunts them here,” said Chet Krcil of Claysville, president of the Washington County Sportsmen and Conservation League.
“The guys who are serious, active bear hunters are going to camp somewhere else to hunt them. I think it's going to require more sightings before someone spends a day or two here hunting them.”
Rich Joyce, one of the commission's two wildlife conservation officers assigned to Washington County, agreed.
There's no doubt the bear population in unit 2A is growing, he said. He's seen a bear himself on state game land 232, heard of sightings of sows with cubs and knows of many places where “you'd be hard-pressed not to find bear tracks.”
But bear numbers still aren't nearly as big as in some other units, such as 2C, which are only an hour's drive away.
Hunters who live in 2A are simply going elsewhere to hunt where their odds are a little better, he added.
“But it's coming. It's just a matter of time until someone harvests one down here,” Joyce said. “I don't know when. But it's coming.”
Ternent agreed. There was a time 30 years ago when bear populations were largely confined to the state's northeastern and northcentral counties.
The southwest corner of the state was peripheral to the bear range, at best.
But it offers good hunting that's only getting better now, he said. Before long, unit 2A— with its mix of woods and agricultural lands — will be a full-fledged part of that.
“Forested habitat provides a lot of food in the fall. But in years when things like the acorn crop aren't really productive, bears can always fall back on agriculture, like standing corn or whatever. Farmers aren't really happy about that, but it is a food source bears will use,” Ternent said.
“You would think in 2A that, with all of that habitat and all of the harvest going on around it, there are bears there that hunters can take advantage of. It's only a matter of time.”