Black Bear

Black bear research continues today, and there are occasions when the public can get an up-close look at a PA black bear.

The game pole is where hunters gather this time of year, especially after a black bear or a white-tailed deer has been retrieved from the field. As the game is cared for plenty of discussion will fill the air. One question that always seems to come up is, “How much do you think that bear or deer weighs?”

More times than not, the answer is based on mere speculation and is often a bit less than accurate. Yet a pretty darn good estimate can be gained simply by using a piece of rope in combination with a measuring tape.

Pennsylvania black bears have been well-documented. Intense research conducted by the PA Game Commission began in the early 1980s. Under the direction of Dr. Gary Alt, along with field officers and volunteers, a number of black bear research projects were instituted.

Recently I asked Dr. Alt about the chest girth measurement project.

Dr. Alt said, “For over a decade I took and recorded a variety of body measurements on every bear I captured. The chest girth/weight chart data was put together in the 1980s but I can’t remember exactly which year.”

Dr. Alt went on to say, “At the time the PGC already had a weight/chest girth chart for deer. So with the data I had, I put together one for PA bears.”

The hands-on research that began in the early 80s continues and provides a wealth of knowledge and insight regarding PA’s black bear resource.

As black bears are handled in the field, researchers continue to record a number of their measurements. One measurement documented is accomplished by wrapping a rope or string around the animal’s chest right behind the bear’s front legs. The measurement is compared to that of black bears that were weighed in the field when they were tranquilized for one reason or another.

Over time chest girth measurements were assigned an estimated live weight and estimated field dressed weight average. The estimates take into consideration when the measurement was taken during the year and up until and including when the bear was harvested.

Granted the chest girth measurement provides an estimate of weight, however the numbers have been calculated from handling countless black bears measured over decades of time.

In the field immediately following the harvest and before the bear is removed from the field is a great time to obtain a chest girth measurement. Now is when excitement runs high and a party of bear hunters can help provide the manpower needed to obtain the measurement.

To obtain the measurement place a length of rope or string under the bear on the opposite side of the animal’s outstretched legs. Now use the legs to roll the bear over on its opposite side. Gain access to the rope or string and pull it snug behind the bruin’s front legs. Now mark the rope of string indicating the chest girth measurement.

The measured length in inches will reveal the animal’s estimated live weight. A chest girth of 30 inches equals 108 lbs., 40 inches equals 225 lbs., 50 inches equals 385 lbs., and 60 inches equals 588 live weight.

By using a rope or sting to determine the chest girth measurement of a black bear, it is possible to take most of the guesswork out of determining the weight of a PA black bear. But what are the chances of harvesting a black bear this season? Actually, it's better than usual.

A combined archery, blackpowder and special firearms season for black bears was conducted this year. Almost two weeks into the season 1,455 black bears were harvested. Hunters clearly seized the early season opportunity, and by the season’s midpoint the preliminary harvest reached 1,540 black bears taken.

The statewide four-day bear season begins Nov. 23 and goes through Nov. 27 and is extended within two Wildlife Management Units. See page 8 of the hunting and trapping digest for specific WMUs and dates.

The statewide black bear population is estimated at 20,000 animals. In part, the black bear resources have thrived and their numbers have grown.

In 1981, hunters harvested 921 black bears during a one-day season. In response to excessive hunting pressure, the number of bear licenses was limited to 125,000 the following year.

By contrast, now the black bear population is estimated at 20,000. With two back-to-back seasons occurring in 2017 & 2018, hunting pressure was reduced as a result of adverse weather conditions contributing to a lower hunter harvest.

This year, locally and across the northern tier, black bear sightings have become common. In many areas nuisance bears, coupled with their numbers increasing, have made their presence socially unexcitable.

In 2005, hunters harvested 4,164 black bears and in 2011 hunters checked in 4,350 bears. Many feel that hunters could bring in at least 4,000 bears this season and the population would remain stable going into the future.

Simply put, for those who are willing to hunt, this could be a great year to harvest a PA black bear.

Charlie Burchfield is an active member and past president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association, an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Outdoor Writers Assoc. of America and the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers. Gateway Outdoors e-mail is