How to Butcher a Bear

Dave Levitan
Dec 12, 2014 · 8 min read

1. Skin your bear so that you are left with a headless and paw-less carcass covered in layers of white fat. Lay the bear carcass out on your large table or suspend the bear from its hind legs about 3 feet from the ground using your chain, hook, and upright.

There are about 2,500 black bears in the northwestern part of New Jersey, and on December 8, 2014, hunters ventured out into the wilds of the country’s most densely populated state to kill them. Since the hunts began in 2010, 1,599 bears have been “harvested,” representing almost half of the population that lived in New Jersey before hunting began. Another 250 or so will likely end up dead this week, meaning most of the 6,000 or so participating hunters will go home empty-handed.

New Jersey is not exactly Wyoming. There are more than 1,200 people per square mile living there, more than in the tightly packed Netherlands, Haiti, or Israel. The hunting area is defined largely by highways rather than natural landscape features, with the exception of the Delaware River to the west, which serves as the state line with Pennsylvania. There are state parks and forests, but there are also cities with 50,000 people. Climb a tall enough tree on a high enough hill, and there’s a decent chance one could see the Manhattan skyline.

2. Cut off the layers of fat with your hunting knife. Use carefully executed cuts to shave off the fat in chunks, getting as close to the red bear meat as possible. Discard the fat or reserve the pieces to render into bear lard or grease.

The idea behind the bear hunts is to reduce the risk of dangerous human-bear interactions. For a few years, this seemed to be working. Reports of so-called “category 1 bears,” meaning those that act aggressive or dangerous to humans or livestock, dropped from 235 in 2010 to 129 in 2013. Reports of actual livestock murder by bears, though, rose from 21 in 2012 to 35 in 2013.

Those don’t seem like particularly high numbers, but what about “damage/nuisance complaints?” In 2010 there were 2,069 such complaints, and that dropped all the way to 1,231 in 2013. Good! And then it rose back to 1,874 through most of 2014 — bad! — suggesting the remaining bears are learning more effective ways to annoy us. The vast bulk of those reports, by the way, involve bears getting into our garbage cans.

Also in 2014, an actual tragedy: Rutgers University student Darsh Patel was mauled and killed by a black bear in Passaic County, in the northern end of the state. He and his friends were warned off by other hikers, but proceeded toward the bear anyway, “took some photos” and then tried to walk away. The bear followed, and eventually killed Patel.

3. Remove the fillets. To do this, saw the sternum down the middle then split the rib cage into two halves. The tenderloins or fillets are the muscles that run along the spine from the bottom of the rib cage to just before the hind legs. Reserve these if you want bear steaks or simply cube into roughly 2 1/2 by 2 1/2 inch pieces like you will be doing to the rest of the bear meat.

Reduce the number of bears, reduce the potential for tragedy. It seems logical, but anti-hunt activists say it misses the point. Educating people about bear safety — say, things like not taking bear selfies — could make big inroads into improving the situation, and encouraging the use of bear-proof trash cans would also help.

There is even the possibility that the hunt is actively making things worse. Hunters can use bait to lure the bears — which, if they are so abundant as to be a nuisance, seems like it would be unnecessary — and some argue that this changes the bears’ foraging patterns. Those that survive the ordeal might now be even more attracted to human food sources, increasing the chances of human-bear interactions. The big rise in nuisance complaints this year could reflect that, though it is impossible to know for sure.

4. Peel the meat from the ribs. Insert the knife just under the rib meat on the outside of the animal’s rib cage making a generous incision. Run your knife along flesh and the rib bones as you pull the meat back, peeling off the rib meat.

Though officials don’t tend to use the word, the bear hunt is a cull — an active killing of certain amounts of a population to lower the population density. Do culls work? Well… sometimes?

The most prominent cull in recent years has been the United Kingdom’s badger cull, aimed at reducing bovine tuberculosis in cattle. Amidst persistent controversy, analysis suggested that culling the badgers did approximately nothing to reduce incidence of the disease, and may have even raised the risk. Oops.

Deer culling is a common practice in the U.S., where a half-century of conservation efforts led white-tailed deer back from dwindling numbers to damaging overabundance. Aside from deer tendency to eat just about every bit of vegetation available, they are actually far more dangerous to humans than bears: in one recent year, the country saw 1.23 million deer-vehicle collisions, costing us $4 billion. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that 200 people die every year from such collisions.

One study of a “sharpshooting program” attempted in Iowa, Ohio, and New Jersey culled deer populations by between 54 and 76 percent, and did indeed result in reductions in collisions by between 49 and 78 percent. That sounds like it worked. An increase from 1,231 to 1,874 damage/nuisance complaints about bears? Maybe not so much.

5. Remove the meat from the front and back legs. Holding out the limb, use your knife to cut the mean, sinew, and tendons away from shoulder and hip joints and then saw off each limb at the exposed joint. Cut meat away from each leg and cube.

Culling, especially of large, charismatic creatures like bears, rubs many of us the wrong way. After all, the bears didn’t ask to live amongst all these hairless bipeds. Sure, they get into your garbage, but to them that’s just easy food. Deer don’t seem to have much personality to us (Bambi notwithstanding), but bears? Just check the children’s book shelves — Berenstein Bears, Paddington Bear, Baloo in the Jungle Book… how would you feel if Winnie the Pooh got shot in the face?

This isn’t rational, and certainly isn’t a worthwhile argument to make when making a scientific case to either kill or not kill a “nuisance” animal. But it muddies the conversation. For a variety of reasons both rational and irrational, there are plenty of voices saying no to the bear cull, including weeklong protests at the state capitol in Trenton, and at least one petition approaching 25,000 signatures.

Other bear culls seem even more appalling. Officials killed 145 black bears around the tar sands areas of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, in 2012. So, in order to essentially protect a practice already considered environmentally catastrophic, we need to kill the cuddly, rightful denizens of the region? (A wolf cull also caused controversy around the tar sands area — anything to keep animals away from our oil, apparently.) A cull of a few dozen bears in Alaska was at least intended to help moose populations rather than reduce human interactions.

In total, the Humane Society estimates that 33,000 bears are killed by U.S. hunters each year.

6. Strip and cube the remaining meat from the carcass. The remaining meat will mostly be around the shoulders.

Go to Specifically, to the bear forums. Look around at the disdain for the protestors in Trenton, at the ecstatically grinning faces of hunters holding their adorable bear carcasses. Gag a little at the blood and gore in some of the images. Wonder about the intense divide — cultural, social, almost certainly political — between the hunter and the non-hunter in America.

Hunting, obviously, is a huge part of many lives in the U.S., though it does seem odd if you remember that some of those pictures could have been taken something like 30 miles from the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. They could have loaded their bear on to a truck and driven five minutes to be on Route 287, or any of a dozen other major roads and highways. The six counties at least partially included in the hunting area are home to more than 2.2 million people.

Which, of course, is sort of the point of the hunt: these bears live in an area where there are simply too many people for that number of bears. Or, too many bears for that number of people? The latter describes the basis for a cull, the former describes human overpopulation and manifest destiny-style appropriation of any and all land we can find.

7. Place cubes of meat in an airtight container or in plastic bags. Place in your refrigerator or freezer, or grind with spices and other meat (traditionally pork) to make ground meat for hamburgers or sausage.

I have never seen a bear in the wild. This is a constant source of frustration for me, as I love bears and would very much like to encounter one. I have hiked and camped in what are essentially bear-infested areas — Whistler, British Columbia, the Poconos, the Adirondacks and the Catskills, the Uintas in Utah — nothing.

Which is to say that, in some sense, I am the problem. My instinct would be to move closer and admire, not to move away and ignore. But my friends and I hang our food in trees, pick up all our trash, finish the whiskey so there’s nothing for the bears to covet — we don’t bait the ground and wait for a hungry bear to amble over. I live in New Jersey (though further south than the bear hunt arena) — I’ve also never seen a bear in the semi-wilds of this state. They’re not exactly overflowing the forests at every turn.

The 2014 New Jersey bear hunt was the last of five planned hunts, but officials continue to talk about future versions. What is the appropriate number of bears for New Jersey? Two thousand? One thousand? Five hundred? Even one human death at the hands of a bear will seem like too many, but that one happened this year, after four years of hunts — and it was only the second recorded bear-related death in New Jersey’s history! The last one was in 1852. Will we respond to what seems like random chance with systematic killing? Or can we and the bears learn to keep our distance?

*Bear butchering instructions courtesy of the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife

Dave Levitan

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