Black Bear: It's What's for Dinner?

American black bear at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: US FWS

Black bears are moving to town—and as a result becoming increasingly popular quarry for hunters.

Long thought to inhabit only wild forests, over the past two decades black bear populations have risen around the nation and near urban areas. New York state alone has 6,000–7,000 bears. When people abound, so do easy food sources, like Dumpsters and pet food. In the wild the omnivores forage for grass, berries, fruits, nuts, grubs, insects, and carrion.
As the bears have become more prevalent, so have human-bear conflicts. To reduce those interactions, many states have expanded their black bear hunts in an effort to decrease the populations.
Near Aspen, for instance, the Colorado Division of Wildlife nearly doubled the number of tags—from 630 last year to 1,035 this fall—in attempt to ease growing human-bear conflicts. And 2010 was the first year in a half-decade that New Jersey allowed a state-approved hunt
In New Jersey, hunters turned out in record numbers last week, and most plan to eat their quarry, reports: "We wouldn’t shoot them if we wouldn’t eat them," said Ed Robillard, who helped haul to a weighing station a 651-pound bear that his mother, Joan Robillard, shot. "Sure I’m going to mount it – I’m going to eat it, too.”
New Jersey butchers are being inundated with bear, which some would prefer not to deal with. "It’s a nasty creature," Joe Minorics, a butcher with 57 West Deer Processing in Phillipsburg, said of the bear he is now butchering for local hunters. "They’re greasy, and they’re slimy ... It’s so greasy, I don’t want any of it in my deer meat... It’s a trophy animal."

Yet Steve Pappas, owner of Northern Big Game Butcher Service in Vernon, told that bear meat is “great cuisine, if done right.” Bear is often prepared as roast, steaks, or ground into sausage and seasoned. (The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has a recipe for a crock-pot black bear roast on its website.) 

Wildlife officials are looking beyond hunting to decrease human-bear conflicts. Efforts to outsmart bears have had mixed results. For instance, black bears in the Adirondacks have learned to pop the tops off bear-proof food canisters. In Aspen an electrified mat in front of an outdoor freezer put a stop to bear robberies, but it’s not realistic to put one beside every trash can.
As we report in “Scare Tactics” (Audubon May-June 2010), wildlife managers have increasingly turned to “aversive conditioning,” including noisemakers, rubber slugs, and chasing bears. 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Rachel Mazur tested such techniques on 150 bears in Sequoia National Park, where incidents have dropped from around 500 a year to 100. Hazing and rubber slugs prevented bears that didn’t regularly eat human provisions from forming that habit, she reported in the January Journal of Wildlife Management. For the 29 bears used to snacking on people food, aversive conditioning reformed 17, six required more treatment, and six were relocated or killed.
The best way to protect bears—and people—is to store food properly and maintain distance, says Mazur. 

Photo: New York Dept. of Conservation
A note to bird lovers: If you live in bear country, consider taking down your feeders in March, when bears emerge from their dens. Like birds, bears are readily attracted to the rich seeds that you stock your feeder with. For more tips on bears and bird feeders, click here.

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