This will be my last submission for a while. Last fall, Jane and I took our pickup and pop-up trailer for a month to a number of western National Parks and loved it. Then, Jane flew home and I continued my western journeys on my own for another six weeks. This extension included backpacking down the Grand Canyon, staying at the Phantom Ranch campground, hiking to the summit of Mt. Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48), doing a four-day backpack in Sequoia/Kings Canyon NP, and numerous other adventures. Based on this success, Jane and I will set out again in mid-September for Rocky Mountain NP and points west, and after her return, I will drive to the Yucatan Peninsula for an extended trip of unknown duration.
One of the lures of such trips is the wildlife. That’s why I tend to do my hikes in the Shenandoah National Park. The sight of a black bear is always a highlight, and with a population near 3 bear per square mile (the highest density of any national park), the chance to see one is good.
October finds our black bear friends focusing on consuming acorn mast. In preparation for a long period of dormancy (no eating or defecating), black bear must store enough fat in the fall to provide the necessary calories to enable them to survive until next spring. This feeding frenzy, or hyperfagia, finds black bear consuming 2 to 3 pounds of hard mast every day. As long as there are acorns to consume, the black bear will remain active. When the crop is gone, the bear will enter their winter dormancy.
It is of interest to speculate about the number of animals that resided in our forests in pre-Columbian times. While actual numbers may be elusive, an August 2010 article in the Pennsylvania Game News reveals a lot about historic hunting pressures in their State.
The story of hunting starts with the first Swedish colonies of 1643, who constructed 52 wolf pits to protect their livestock. Similarly, with the establishment of England’s charter to William Penn, one of the first decrees was the hunting and trapping of wolves. Bounties for wolves were established in 1683, with hunters collecting 50-75 cents per pelt. For the next 100 years, hundreds of trappers and fur traders roamed the Penn’s Woods forest, surviving on the hunting trade. By 1802, wolf bounties had increased to $8 for an adult wolf and $2.50 for a pup, which was increased in 1840 to $25 per adult and $15 per pup. With such excessive bounties, it’s a testament to the wolf’s durability that the wolves remained for 200 years, with the last bounties paid in the late 1800’s.
After the 1758 Easton treaty with the Pennsylvanian Indian nations, one Irish trapper (George Croghan) began a major business venture in western PA. Working with hundreds of business agents throughout the colonies, he would take several hundred mules carrying trading goods of steel knives, jewelry and cookware to exchange with the Indians for pelts. He learned their dialects, and constructed storage houses on the Susquehanna, Ohio and Allegheny rivers.
Wolves were not the only mammals with bounties. In 1749, red and gray squirrels were classified as predators, with a bounty of about a penny per squirrel tail. With such an enticement, many farmers dropped their plows and went hunting with the result that 640,000 squirrel tails were collected in a five-county area in southeastern PA. In 1750, the bounty was halved.
Mountain lions were subject to an $8 bounty by the early 1800’s, with the last one collected in 1868.
As early as 1819 a $1 bounty was established to promote the harvest of bobcats in the Commonwealth. This bounty was increased to $15 during 1916 and greater than 7,000 bobcats were killed for bounty during 1916-37.
The “Scalp Act” of 1885 placed $2 bounties on bobcats and $1 on red and gray foxes, and 50-cents on weasels, mink, hawks and most owls (no saw-whet or barn owls). The overwhelming success of this program led to its repeal in 1887 (180,000 hawks and owls killed during two-year period).
In 1896, “Trapper Swope”, a career hunter/trapper, accounted for 21 bobcats, 792 foxes, and 1,135 mink. In 1909, a group of hunters harvested nearly 100 black bear in a two-month period.
Bounties continued into the twentieth century. In 1908, foxes brought in $4 to $4.50, $5 to $6 for mink, and 80 cents to $2.25 for skunks.
In 1913, the new Pennsylvania Game Commission introduced the first hunting licenses, providing for bounties on bobcats, foxes, weasels, mink, goshawks, sharp-shinned hawks and great horned owls. With the ensuing slaughter of all species of hawks and owls, these birds were soon removed from the bounty system until 1941, when great horned owl bounties were again instituted .
Bounties on minks ended in 1921; bobcats ended in 1937, while bounties on goshawks remained until 1951 and until 1954 on weasels. The $5 bounty on great horned owls was removed in 1965. Gray and red fox bounties remained in effect until 1966.
From 1913 through 1966, bounties were paid on 7,305 bobcats, 499,493 gray foxes, 416,127 red foxes, 26,222 mink, 1,271,798 weasels, 26,608 great horned owls and 2,980 goshawks.
Currently, there are no bounties for any wildlife in Pennsylvania, although coyote bounties do exist in other States, including southwestern Virginia. Hunting seasons exist for all of the mentioned mammals except bobcat, otter, hawks and owls. Harvests of raccoons, gray fox, muskrat, skunk, and opossum increased from the previous season whereas harvests of red fox, coyote, mink, beaver, and weasel declined. A limited trapping season is being initiated this year for the introduced fisher.
For the 2008-2009 hunting season, the recorded harvest is as follows: White-tailed deer – 308, 020 (the lowest number since 1986); Black Bear – 3,512 (second to 2005’s 4,164); Raccoon - 142,808; Red Fox - 44,745; Gray Fox – 20, 845; Coyote – 12,776; Muskrat – 74,059; Mink – 8,632; Skunk – 12,331; Opossum – 54,273; Beaver – 9,942; and Weasel – 504.