Repopulating and Managing Black Bears in Pennsylvania

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
The American black bear as “Drawn from Nature” by John Woodhouse Audubon, son of John James Audubon, and printed and hand colored by J.T. Bowen, 1848. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections / From John James Audubon and John Bachman, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America v. 3 (J.J. Audubon, 1848): no. 29, plate 141

The American black bear as “Drawn from Nature” by John Woodhouse Audubon, son of John James Audubon, and printed and hand colored by J.T. Bowen, 1848.
University of Michigan Library Digital Collections / From John James Audubon and John Bachman, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America v. 3 (J.J. Audubon, 1848): no. 29, plate 141

Three species of bears inhabit North America: black bears, polar bears and brown bears (including Alaskan brown bears and grizzlies). The only bear living in the eastern United States, and one that is thriving in Pennsylvania, is the American black bear (Ursus americanus). Pennsylvania’s bear population as of 2022 is estimated to be around 16,000, the result of sound, science-based wildlife management coupled with large tracts of prime bear habitat and ample food sources within the state. Pennsylvania is simply a great place to live if you are a bear.

It hasn’t always been this way. At the time of European settlement, large numbers of bears existed in Pennsylvania. Black bears prefer forest-covered habitat, and mature forests covered more than 90 percent of the state. Bears had no natural enemies in the wild and mortality from humans was minimal, so they had the best of both worlds; however, as forest lands were gradually cleared and converted to farming, or simply harvested for timber, suitable bear habitat within the state decreased significantly. To compound the situation there were no laws that prevented year-round bear hunting. Bears were killed for their hides, for their meat and fat used in cooking, and for sport.

By 1920 bear numbers were down significantly across the state, and their distribution was restricted to only a handful of northcentral and northeast counties. Over the next few decades, efforts to repopulate bears led to increased forested habitat throughout the state, but bear recovery did not follow suit. Population declines, mainly due to overhunting, occurred in some areas. By the late 1970s it is estimated that only about 4,000 black bears remained in the state. Around the same time, the Pennsylvania Game Commission instituted measures to promote black bear recovery — measures that have proven to be extremely successful.

In recent years, Pennsylvania’s black bears have been more abundant than at any other time since European settlement. There are about four times as many bears in the state now than there were 40 years ago, when the recovery began. Areas occupied by bears have also increased to record levels. During the 2021 hunting season, black bears were taken in 59 of 67 counties, and sightings have been confirmed in every county in the state.

Several factors are responsible for the dramatic increase in bear numbers since the early 1980s. The initial step in the repopulation process, and a crucial one, was designating two years of no bear hunting in 1977 and 1978, enabling a recovery to begin. This was the only time in the state’s history when there were two consecutive years without bear hunting. Shortly thereafter, to further alleviate hunting pressure, a bear license was created, which reduced the number of hunters by about 50 percent. In addition, hunting seasons were established and scheduled with the intention of protecting females and their cubs. Restocking efforts were instituted in peripheral areas of the original bear range, and hunting was temporarily closed in some of those areas to allow populations to reestablish. During that same period, suitable bear habitat in the state expanded as forests matured. Natural food supplies were plentiful and reliable, enabling females to produce larger litters with a better chance of cub survival. All the essential elements were in place for a bear recovery, and it has worked extremely well.

That said, from time to time over the past couple of decades, there have been declines in the state’s bear population from one year to the next. A few years ago, the population was estimated to be as high as 20,000, a few thousand more than in 2022. Similar dips were registered from 2005 to 2007 and 2010 to 2012.

Wildlife biologist Emily Carrollo examines two bear cubs in her work as the Black Bear Program specialist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Pennsylvania Game Commission / Photo, Emily Corrollo

Wildlife biologist Emily Carrollo examines two bear cubs in her work as the Black Bear Program specialist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Pennsylvania Game Commission / Photo, Emily Corrollo

Emily Carrollo, a wildlife biologist at the Pennsylvania Game Commission, explains that periodic declines are not cause for concern. She believes that a record-setting harvest of 4,653 bears in 2019, the largest ever, could possibly account, at least in part, for the lower population estimates in 2020 and 2021. The year 2019 was the third time since 2005 that the harvest topped 4,000. The others were 4,162 in 2005 and 4,350 in 2011, which correspond with previous population declines. “Having large harvests over a two-year period can potentially have an effect on the bear population in the following year or two, as females typically give birth only every other year,” Carrollo says.

She also emphasizes that the total number of bears killed during the hunting season is not the only factor impacting bear population. “The percent makeup of males and females of the total harvest has always been roughly 50/50, leaning towards one side or the other ever so slightly each year,” she says. “What we are looking at now is the potential effect of an increased female harvest rate on population size.”

From 2010 to 2018 the average annual harvest rate for females was 13 percent of the female population. From 2019 to 2021 the rate increased to 22 percent. Carrollo believes the increase in 2019 to 2021 was due primarily to the establishment of an earlier bear hunting season coupled with an extended archery and muzzleloader season. These changes made it more likely that females had not yet entered their winter dens for hibernation when the hunting season opened, which resulted in a higher percentage of females being taken. The Game Commission will closely monitor future harvests to determine whether the trend continues. If it does, Carrollo confidently states that “over the past 40 years we have perfected the methodology to increase and maintain a healthy bear population. If changes need to be made to reverse the trend, then we know what to do and how to do it.”

 

Bear Biology

Black bears are the second largest mammal roaming the forested mountains and valleys of Pennsylvania — only bull elks weigh more. Adult males, or boars, tend to be significantly larger than females, sows, and can measure from 4 feet to 7 feet in length, stand 3 feet high at the shoulder, and weigh more than 400 pounds. Rare individuals can grow to be much larger, particularly in Pennsylvania, where some of the largest black bears have been taken, with reported weights of nearly 800 pounds.

Despite the name, not all black bears are black. Their thick fur can range in color from cinnamon to dark brown or black. Although extremely rare, there is even a pure white form of black bear found only in the Great Bear Rainforest, a 15.8-million-acre ecosystem on British Columbia’s north and central coast. Referred to as the “spirit bear,” the white bear is a subspecies of the American black bear and is revered by Native Americans. The white color is caused by a recessive gene from both the mother and the father.

The mating season in Pennsylvania peaks in May and June. Following fertilization, the embryo takes until fall to implant in the uterus, about the time when females enter dens for winter hibernation. As the weather becomes colder and food scarcer, black bears undergo metabolic changes that enable them to hibernate for several months without eating, drinking, urinating or defecating. The process of delayed implantation in the uterus occurs in all bear species and allows the female’s body to physiologically assess her condition before the period of gestation leading to the birth of cubs begins. Delayed implantation allows the female to prepare for pregnancy and save the fat reserves and energy needed to sustain a pregnancy that otherwise would have little chance of success if her physical condition is too poor.

Females generally give birth to cubs every other year if food sources are sufficiently plentiful. In years when food supplies are scarce, a female may skip an additional year or two between litters. A black bear litter can have one to five cubs, but the most common litters contain two. The youngsters are born in the mother’s winter den, which can be located under windfalls, in a hollow tree or cave, or even in a previously occupied den. Cubs will usually den with their mother again the following winter. Then in spring, when the cubs are about one and a half years old, they will separate from the female to establish their own territories. On occasion black bears can live up to 30 years in the wild, but most die before they are in their early 20s.

Ursus Americanus in the Pennsylvania wilderness. Pennsylvania Game Commission / Photo, Jacob Dingel

Ursus Americanus in the Pennsylvania wilderness.
Pennsylvania Game Commission / Photo, Jacob Dingel

Pennsylvania’s black bears are powerful animals that sit atop the food chain and have no natural enemies. For the most part, however, they are not active hunters. Bears are classified as omnivores, animals that consume a wide variety of both plants and meat. Pennsylvania’s forests, streams and meadows provide a smorgasbord of tasty items for hungry bears that includes fish, roots, berries, meat and carrion of various animals, insects, larvae, and plants. Bears are opportunists and will, on occasion, kill young deer or elk fawn, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Black bears are also capable of killing livestock if the opportunity presents itself. Consequently, farmer–bear conflicts sometimes occur, and such confrontations are usually fatal for bears.

With more and more black bears roaming the Keystone State, we might expect to see a corresponding increase in human–bear conflict. According to Carrollo, that is sometimes, but not always, the case. Black bears are secretive, shy and solitary (except for mother and cub family groups) and, for the most part, avoid humans. If an increased incidence of human–bear conflict would occur, Carrollo believes that the Game Commission, working in concert with an educated public, can take steps to keep the conflict within acceptable limits.

Most human–bear contacts that occur within the state are linked with a common denominator — food. Bears are food-motivated and attracted to garbage at campgrounds or even backyard trash barrels. When bears get in the habit of foraging for food with humans nearby, and when people attempt to feed bears, then the possibility for a bad outcome — usually for the bear — increases exponentially. Bears that become accustomed to eating garbage and who have little fear of approaching humans for food often become nuisance bears. Such bears can sometimes be relocated to a different area of the state, but if they do not change their behavior, and most don’t, they eventually must be euthanized. As the saying so aptly predicts, “a fed bear is often a dead bear.”

 

Managing Pennsylvania’s Bear Population

Maintaining a large and healthy black bear population in a state populated by nearly 13 million humans is not an easy task nor does it happen by chance. The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a bear management plan in place with the stated mission to “maintain healthy black bear populations in suitable habitats throughout the Commonwealth that provide hunting and viewing recreation without human–bear conflicts exceeding levels acceptable to citizens of Pennsylvania.” The four primary goals identified to accomplish that mission are to ensure that black bear populations remain healthy and self-sustaining; minimize loss of forested habitats and improve quality of existing forests for black bears; maintain human–bear conflicts at acceptable levels; and provide bear-related recreational activities such as hunting, viewing and photographing. To achieve those goals requires up-to-date information on the bear population, sound planning, and science-based decision-making with a vision to the future. The Pennsylvania Gam Commission has done just that.

Ongoing research on the bear population is conducted annually by the Game Commission. Emily Carrollo is hands-on with much of the research that involves the tracking and monitoring of radio-collared bears. According to Carrollo, there are presently between 50 and 55 collared bears in the state, primarily sows with cubs. The collared bears are located by GPS in their winter dens and physically checked during the February and March hibernation period. Carrollo and her coworkers obtain census information such as the average number of cubs, annual survival rate of cubs, and age of the mother bear at her first and subsequent litters. Additional data is recorded on the movement and territorial range of the bears. The researchers also ensure that the collars are on correctly and are not in any way causing health concerns for the bears.

With 16,000 bears presently sharing the state with us, the obvious question going forward is, “How many more bears can Pennsylvania support?” According to Carrollo, the answer to that question is two-fold. The “biological carrying capacity” of the state is based upon the availability of prime bear habitat and the reliability of ample food sources. On both counts, Carrollo believes that Pennsylvania can easily take on more bears; however, the other factor that must be considered is the “social carrying capacity” of the state.

Social carrying capacity is determined by the Game Commission’s ability to maintain an acceptable amount of human–bear conflict. As the bear population continues to grow, common sense would suggest that the potential for increased human–bear conflict will follow suit. Carrollo does not believe that will necessarily occur, however. She emphasizes that an additional factor to consider in the equation, one that has contributed significantly to black bear repopulation success over the past few decades, is the bears’ adaptability. When provided the opportunity, black bears have clearly demonstrated that they can and do successfully live in close association with humans. A bear-educated public will also serve to mitigate the potential for increased human–bear conflict. In general, bears want nothing to do with people — unless food is involved. Simply put, we should not attempt to feed the bears, and if and when we do unexpectedly meet a bear, whether it be hiking in the woods or in our own backyard, give them their space. If we are willing to do so, then humans and black bears will successfully share the forests and valleys of Pennsylvania for decades to come.

 

Joseph A. Luxbacher, Ph.D., has more than three decades of experience in the fields of health, fitness and competitive athletics. He played soccer at the University of Pittsburgh, where he still holds records, and in the professional North American Soccer League and Major Indoor Soccer League. He returned to Pitt as the head men’s soccer coach, 1985–2015. Luxbacher is also an aficionado of environmental issues and outdoor sports and has recently published articles on those subjects.