Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Last fall, my brother shot a bear. A big bear. Near the border of North Jersey and New York. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it initially. I was excited for him, but I felt a sadness that I couldn’t really place. I knew the population absolutely has to be managed. Most people, myself included, are surprised when they find out the state with the highest population density of black bears other than Alaska is not Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, or Idaho; it is New Jersey. Yes, New Jersey. The bear hunt there has been pretty politicized in the last decade or so, and every few years it flip-flops one way or another being banned or reopened. The unfortunate reality is that a state with both one of the highest population densities of humans and bears does not mix well. One population needs to be managed, and it surely won’t be human beings. Until they are, there will be more and more bear to human contact, resulting in more and more conflicts. There was even a black bear related death in my hometown of West Milford in New Jersey several years ago. Although the details are kind of shaky, there weren’t even any cubs involved. A group of kids were attacked, and one didn’t make it out alive. This is nearly unheard of for black bears, who are either very skittish or totally indifferent to human beings presence.
I’ve had many interactions with black bears throughout my life, and always had a sort of reverence for a fellow apex-predator. They are mostly goofy and curious animals. I’ve watched quite a few bears steal or having recently stolen a garbage can or bag, proceed to sit down on their hind legs and pick through the garbage looking for whatever their favorite goodies may be. Despite the capability of taking down just about any other animal in the Northeast, they are mostly scavengers, preferring easy meals like nuts, berries, and garbage to chasing down a deer, although they can run about as fast. They have an incredible sense of smell that they rely on mostly to find their quarry. I have heard that a deer has ten times the sense of smell as a German Shepard, which can smell early onset tumors from within the body, and a bear has ten times the sense of smell of a deer. Their home ranges are anywhere from 3-60 miles typically, depending on the sex of the animal, with male black bears typically traveling more than females. They are on the move quite a bit, and often make large circles around their territories.
Up until the last few years, I had not really considered eating them. I had heard a variety of different accounts on the subject, ranging from bears in interior Alaska that eat mostly blueberries being the best meat someone has ever had
to them being pretty close to inedible, comparable to eating a big raccoon, which I am glad to have found out later is completely untrue. I later found out via the Meateater podcast that bears were a favorite among early pioneers, even more coveted than eating elk. The Meateater guys talk about eating bear quite a bit, but those guys will take just about anything and figure out a way to turn it into delicacy – even crow.
So to loop back to the beginning, last fall I found myself with quite a bit of bear. Some was processed into sausages, pastrami, and hot dogs, which were all very good, so I decided to cook some of the back strap steaks I had. Being that they eat other animals, bear is similar to pork or chicken in that it must be cooked to 165 degrees (some argue that it’s actually 145, but I’m not going to be the one to find out otherwise) in order to kill trichinosis, so I decided to cook it as bear bourguignon in a dutch oven for a few hours. The picture above is the finished product. I expected it to be very gamey or tough, especially being that it was an older bear, but the taste itself was incredibly mild. There was no gaminess whatsoever. I would liken it to a milder version of beef. If I fed it to someone who didn’t know what it was, there would be no possible way they would suspect it was anything other than beef. Within a few bites, my view of these animals changed from being giant inedible raccoon, to a large, sustainable (at least near New Jersey and New York) food source.
My initial apprehension, even as a hunter and someone who is willing to try just about any food, got me thinking about what has shaped my ideas of what meat is considered a food source. I quickly realized this: our ideas about what is edible and what is not that have been shaped by big agriculture, politics, and culture, by what is cheapest, most profitable, and easy to raise, not what is actually the most edible, practical, or even the tastiest. In the United States, we eat mainly chicken, pork, and beef. The average American eats over 200 lbs of meat every year. Other than the treatment of these animals being utterly morally repulsive, large amounts of fossil fuels, water, and corn are used in the production of factory farmed meats, making it one of the dirtiest industries behind the fossil fuel industry. These animals have been altered in ways that are disturbing to anyone, pumped full of hormones, meat dyes, etc. Veganism is often offered as a clean alternative, but environmentally, the cleanest protein source comes from hunting large, local animals – a point echoed by Michael Pollan as well.
The morality of hunting often comes into the spotlight, especially when it comes to animals that have been misrepresented by the media as cute, cuddly, or having human traits or emotions, a term called anthropomorphism. Objectively, bears in this area need to be managed. There is no way around it. Capturing and moving bears is unbelievably costly, usually about $10,000 per bear, and often bears do not adjust well to the trauma of this and starve to death. If nothing at all is done, these bears will also suffer. There are no nursing homes or hospice for wild animals. They will likely not die pleasantly of natural causes. Animals starve to death, freeze to death, or die slowly from disease or from wounds incurred by vehicles. All of the above are slow and painful. As food sources and habitat continue to diminish, the maximum number of bears that can survive in a given habitat, the carrying-capacity, will begin to drop and these animals will suffer tremendously in comparison to a short, or often instant, death from a well-placed shot from a rifle.
Culturally, there are many folks who have never had any interactions with these wild animals who are vehemently opposed to bear hunting for the above reasons. Many may not realize their thoughts on this are based on cartoon characters, stuffed animals, a gross misconception of what happens to these animals in the wild when they run out of natural habitat, and the idea that people are hunting these animals just for a thrill, as an expression of some kind of hyper masculine violence, and not for a food source. If you find yourself still opposed at the end of this essay, I encourage you to ask yourself why. I encourage you to ask yourself where your ideas about food and morality regarding such come from. Why does one animal supplying a whole family with a clean protein source for an entire year still not sit well? Why does knowing this one large animal’s death helps curb pollution and suffering from both factory farmed and animals in the wild still seem wrong? If this is wrong, what seems morally right, and why? How does the fact that this protein source is cleaner, greener, and more sustainable in many ways than veganism sit with you? The comment section is open, and I would love to hear any of your answers to these questions.