This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of the other stories in the series here.
On a summer morning in Tuscarora State Forest, Emily Carrollo crouches in front of a metal bear trap, pointing a small flashlight through the metal grating. Inside, the light makes visible the head of a large black bear — long brown snout, round teddy-bear ears, dark eyes.
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The bear sits quietly inside the trap, a two-and-a-half-foot wide tube with a trap door on one end. The bear wandered into the trap sometime over the last 24 hours, lured by about a dozen stale donuts Carrollo left inside as bait. Carrollo, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s black bear biologist, can tell instantly that the animal is a male — a dead giveaway are the scratch marks on his face.
“Those are from fighting with other males because it’s breeding season,” Carrollo says.
The bear is one of 700 the game commission is trapping this year as part of its annual tagging program. The state tags these bears as a way to estimate the overall bear population, which has recovered in recent decades.
Carrollo pulls out her tranquilizer dart gun, takes aim at the bear’s thick shoulder muscles, and pulls the trigger. Fifteen minutes later, she and a couple of helpers — Tom Keller, the game commission’s game animal section supervisor (and Carrollo’s boss), and Scott Miller, the district forester for Tuscarora State Forest, west of Harrisburg, pull the bear onto the forest floor.
He is a huge creature, six feet long, with a massive head and powerful limbs. His paws measure six inches wide. Carrollo says he’s one of the biggest she’s ever tagged — well over 300 pounds. She estimates he’s about six or seven years old, and in a couple of years, could weigh 500 pounds.
“He’s a really good-looking bear,” she says, before offering something like a scouting report: “fantastic” body weight, no bony protrusions indicating malnourishment, no signs of mange, a “great” looking coat of black fur. “He’s clearly getting plenty to eat and he’s in really excellent shape,” she concludes.
Carrollo takes his temperature, measures his head and torso, and shaves a patch of hair off the bear’s ears, which she will pierce to place tags.
After that, she tattoos a number inside the bear’s mouth, in case the tag falls off. Carollo also pulls a premolar — basically a wisdom tooth — to calculate the bear’s age.
Managing Pennsylvania’s Bear Populations
All of this data — hair, blood, teeth samples — will help wildlife scientists better understand the bear population down the road and even help fight diseases like mange.
Pennsylvania’s black bear population was much smaller in the 1970s, according to Carrollo. “They were practically decimated into small subpopulations. They could really only be found in the north-central and the northeast part of the state.”
That changed after the state placed limits on bear hunting. Since then, the population has taken off, to its current number of around 16,000. Pennsylvania is “a really great place to be a bear. There’s plenty of food. There’s plenty of land. There’s plenty of resources for them. That’s really why we have so many bears and it’s why we have really big bears,” she says.
Black bears’ range is large — they live from Canada to Mexico and eat a varied diet of plants, nuts, and berries. On rare occasions, they will eat animals, Carrollo said, like very young and unprotected fawns.
Tagging the bears to create a census will also help guide management decisions to limit human and bear interactions. The state gets more than 1,000 calls a year from people who’ve encountered bears in campgrounds, their backyards, and other places.
The bears, if left alone, aren’t dangerous.
“Black bears are extremely docile,” she says. “They really try and avoid any kind of conflict with people, they look at us as a threat. They really want nothing to do with people.”
Just Don’t Feed the Bears
The problem is people, especially those who try to feed the animals.
“You know, they try and walk up and feed black bears because they think it’s cute. And that’s absolutely the number one easiest way to get hurt by wildlife,” Carrollo says.
We are biologists, but in reality, we’re mostly managing people…to be able to interact with wildlife.
If a bear gets used to eating human food, it can become a nuisance.
“You might get bears that get fed a few times from people at a campground and then all of a sudden that bear is approaching every other person that visits that campground,” Carrollo said. In those cases, the animal is often euthanized because they cannot change their eating habits.
That’s why the census is important. It helps the state manage the fall bear hunt, which yields around 3,700 bears a year with a goal to keep bears away from areas with lots of people.
“We are biologists, but in reality, we’re mostly managing people, making management plans that help kind of construct rules and regulations and how to get people to behave, to be able to interact with wildlife so we can maintain these populations and preserve them for future generations,” Carrollo says.
If you see a black bear in the woods, the best advice is to simply allow them to retreat. “Giving animals their space and giving them the ability to remove themselves from the scenario if they want to get out of it is the most important thing,” she says.
After taking measurements, Carrollo gives the bear another shot, this time to wake him up.
A few minutes later, the bear stumbles to his feet. A few seconds later, he’s quickly galloping away, back into the forest.