This photo, posted to the PA Game Commission Facebook page in early August, shows a black bear visiting a wallow in central PA. Bears like this one can cause considerable damage to a field of corn, and this has been the case for many farmers this growing season.

The black bear is a common species in Pennsylvania, with population growth more than quadrupling over the past five decades.

According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission website, “Black Bear numbers have increased substantially in Pennsylvania, from around 4,000 in the 1970s to around 18,000 today. A dramatic growth has provided more opportunities for people to see bears, which is an experience many treasure, and bear hunting has greatly improved.”

While bear harvests for the state have set records in 2011 (4,350 bears killed during hunting season) and 2014 (3,366 bears harvested in 56 counties), the same cannot be said in McKean County. In fact, the bear harvest in McKean County has declined since 2011, which was the peak harvest for our area with 258 bears harvested. Last year’s bear harvest was 67 bears.

With an increased population and less harvest during hunting season, farmers have seen a significant growth in bear damage to crops.

On Sept. 18, Smethport farmer Gary Isadore wrote a letter to the editor chronicling his issues with bears in his corn.

“I am writing to you about the bear problem in McKean County. Myself, along with other farmers, are just watching the bears destroy our corn fields. It costs us $500 a ton plus fertilizer, $200 a bag for corn, plus time and the fuel to prepare the ground to plant the crop,” Isadore wrote. “Then we pay good money for spray to kill weeds. Then as a farmer, you hope that you get a good growing season to get a terrific crop of corn. The last two years have been bad, due to excessive rain. So corn has been planted late, increasing the time that it sits in the field, waiting to mature, and giving the bears time to destroy the crop.

“I am harvesting my corn this week (Sept. 18, 2019). It should not be mature until the first week of October. If I wait to harvest, the bear will have all of the corn. It is hard on the silo, with all of the juices that are going to be in the corn.”

Isadore also wrote of the possibility that a game warden can bring a trap to catch the bear, but he believes the bears have been in the trap before and tend to stay away from them as a result.

Isadore’s letter closes with suggestions to help address the bear problem, noting that changes to the time when bear season is run and the length of the season would be helpful and that the Game Commission paying the farmers for crop damage would be another possibility to help farmers struggling with bears damaging their crops.

When contacted via phone, Isadore noted that the bear problem has been on the rise for more than this growing season.

“It seems like it’s been getting worse the last two or three years, but this year it’s just been unbearable,” Isadore said. “I planted a nice six-acre field of corn, but I had to chop it off before it was really ready to chop. There had to be three or four bear in there at one time.”

Between weather and bear problems, his harvest was not nearly what he hoped to get.

“The weather really hurt my cornfield bad this year, but some corn was still good,” he explained. “(Another farmer) let me know that a mother bear and 3 cubs and another bear were in there. They about annihilated what was left.”

Isadore lamented, “Here in McKean and this end of Potter County, they need to do something. They need to extend bear season, they have got to do something.”

Pennsylvania Game Commission Communications Director Travis Lau confirmed that bears damaging crops has been an increasing problem over the past three years throughout McKean County.

“Wardens have been getting more calls regarding nuisance bear complaints and relocating bears,” Lau confirmed. “We have received bear complaints involving bears getting into crops throughout all of McKean County, not just one isolated area.”

Farmers may see a difference after hunting season this year, as multiple changes have been approved for the 2019 season.

“This year, we have added a new 7-day October muzzleloader season for bear, a new 3-day special firearms season (junior/senior/active military, etc.) for bear; added a week to the archery bear season; and added the new Saturday deer-opener to the extended bear season,” Lau said. “All of these changes affect McKean County. The changes approved for 2019 are the largest suite of bear season changes ever introduced in a single year.”

For Isadore, the news of change to the hunting season was good. However, he is still waiting to hear if he’ll get any reprieve from his crop insurance for the poor harvest. It will be next year before Isadore can really tell if the changes to the hunting season help protect his crops.