Sightings of black bears in Butler County are becoming more common due to their growing population.
“You're definitely going to see more bears. Their numbers (are) increasing and their range is increasing in Pennsylvania. That's been going on for a significant time,” said Jason Amory, who was recently named information and education supervisor of the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Northwest Region, which includes Butler County.
The number of bears trapped live and relocated due to complaints has increased in recent years, but most bear sightings are innocuous, he said.
Game wardens trapped and relocated 47 bears last year in the eight-county Northwest Region, including one from Butler County. In 2018, two of the 68 trapped and relocated bears were captured in the county. Three of the 59 trapped and relocated bears in 2017 came from the county. One of the 61 bears handled in 2016 came from the county, and five of 43 handled in 2015 came from the county.
Bears emerge from their winter dens in February or March. This includes females with the cubs they birthed over the winter.
Females with 1½- to 2-year-old cubs will evict those juveniles in May, June or early July to breed with a male.
Bears seen in the spring and summer could be adult males, evicted young adults, or mothers with their cubs.
“They could be seeing those yearlings trying to find territory, could be males looking for mates, could be a mother with cubs foraging for food,” Amory said.
Bears begin feeding heavily after the breeding season to gain weight before winter, he said.
A bear sighting can become a bear complaint when their hunger and keen sense of smell lead them to bird feeders, garbage cans, corn fields, grills and pet food.
“There's an awful lot of opportunity for conflict,” Amory said.
The number of people who feed wild animals is “incredible,” Amory said, adding it is illegal to intentionally feed bears.
He said the commission recommends that people not feed any wildlife because it causes animals to congregate unnaturally, which can lead to the spread of diseases. People who feed birds should only do so during the winter when food is harder to find than it is in summertime.
“Birds and other wildlife don't need it that time of year. Food is abundant that time of year,” Amory said.
Most bear sightings don't have to be reported, but people alarmed by a bear should keep a safe distance from it.
“Don't try to interact, and give it a lot of space,” Amory said.
Backing away is recommended when a female with cubs is encountered.
“They can be aggressive and especially with cubs. If you see a mother and cubs, back out of the situation,” he said.
Dogs should be kept on leashes to prevent them from chasing bears.
“A bear will only run from a dog for a short distance then defend itself,” Amory said.
Field corn that farmers grow to feed cattle is sweet when it is growing in the summer and “bears love it,” he said.
Garbage cans should be left inside until pickup day, and pet food should not be left outside, he said.
Bears that still get into garbage can be scared away by using harassment techniques suggested by the commission. One technique is attaching a balloon filled with ammonia to the garbage can. A bear that tries to access the can will break the balloon and the ammonia will irritate its senses.
“Typically that negative stimulus will prevent them from coming back,” Amory said.
Bears that do return, act aggressively, approach people, or follow their noses to gardens and corn fields can be considered nuisances, and the commission will trap and relocate them.
“We're going to have to lean how to live with black bears. They're so abundant we're just going to have to learn to live with them,” Amory said.
The number of bears legally harvested by hunters and killed in road accidents provides a glimpse into their population growth.
Hunters harvested 44, highway accidents claimed 13, and two were killed by other means in the county in 2019. One of those bears weighed 481 pounds. A total of 639 bears were killed in the Northwest Region last year.
In 2018, hunters harvested 26 and vehicle accidents claimed seven in the county, while 600 were killed in the region. Hunters took 18 in 2017, while vehicle accidents claimed five and one was killed by other means in the county, and 444 were killed in the region.
In 2016, hunters took 11, one was illegally harvested, seven were killed on highways and one died by other means, and 587 were killed in the region. Hunters harvested 22 in 2015, while three were killed on highways and two died from unknown causes, and 525 were killed in the region.
Statewide, 4,653 bears were killed in the 2019 hunting season, setting a new harvest record.
Bear sightings increase in the spring and summer, but overall, seeing a bear is a rare occurrence and should be appreciated.
“It's highly infrequent,” Amory said.