Pennsylvania's black bear population is doing so well that it could handle a record harvest two years in a row.
This week, the Pennsylvania Game Commission announced that the 2011 bear season harvest of 4,350 was the greatest in the state's history. The preliminary harvest of 3,968, which was announced last December, didn't include complete reports from all check stations.
The record harvest is due in part to the extended seasons that were put in place in various Wildlife Management Units during all or portions of the first week of the rifle deer season, and resulted in a harvest of 878 bears. In addition, 3,168 bears were taken during the four-day regular season, which included a Saturday opener, and another 304 were taken during the statewide five-day archery season.
In the northeast region, 615 bears were taken during the regular season and 422 during the extended season.
The previous record harvest of 4,164 bears was set in 2005 during a three-day regular season and a six-day extended season in five WMUs.
Another factor contributing to the record is the overall health of the bear population. Kevin Wenner, a wildlife biologist with the PGC's Northeast Region Office, said the population is doing so well that it could withstand another record harvest this year.
"Each management unit will be evaluated to determine if we can continue at the same harvest rate and the same season lengths as last year, and it appears we can," Wenner said. "We still have a healthy, robust bear population in the northeast and it's possible we could see a similar harvest this season depending on food availability, weather and hunting pressure."
Wenner said approximately 20 percent of the overall bear population (approximately 18,000) is harvested each season, and the rate doesn't seem to be decreasing bear numbers in Pennsylvania. The habitat in the state can support more bears, he said, but the agency is unlikely to manage for an increase.
"Habitat-wise we could continue to grow bear numbers, but socially it wouldn't be responsible on our part," Wenner said.
One method that PGC biologists use to calculate the percentage of the population harvested is by comparing the number of tagged bears taken during the season. In the Northeast, Wenner said the agency captures and tags an average of 200 bears annually.
One indicator of just how well bears are doing in Pennsylvania is the average litter size and breeding age. Wenner said Pennsylvania bears produce an average litter of three cubs, which is the highest in the country. West Virginia's average litter size is 2.7, while Maine's is 2.4.
The average breeding age of a female bear in Pennsylvania is 3.2 years, which is the lowest in the country. Most other states have an average breeding age of four or five years, Wenner said.
• Final 2011 bear harvests for counties in the northeast region (2010 figures in parentheses):
Wayne, 208 (93); Sullivan, 180 (57); Bradford, 126 (38); Pike, 116 (134); Luzerne, 99 (58); Susquehanna, 92 (41); Monroe, 88 (69); Wyoming, 57 (22); Carbon, 45 (35); Columbia, 26 (20); Lackawanna, 25 (19); Northumberland, 11 (3).