For some of you, spring means gobbling toms, box calls and tightly patterned shotguns. But for those of us that live west of the foothills and peaks of the Rockies spring can also mean a welcome return to the mountains, and the familiarity of sitting behind glass scouring cut blocks, slides and avalanche chutes in search of big lumbering bruins. Yes, bear season is upon us and here in BC we are fortunate to have some of, if not the, best black bear hunting in the world and we couldn’t be more excited. With an estimated 120,000 – 160,000 black bears in Canada’s most western province alone, and more than 600,000 black bears roaming the forests and mountains from East to West and North to South, Ursus americanus maintains a vast range and robust population status here in North America.
And yet, there are few topics that polarize the pro-hunting community and tarnish the non-hunting public’s perception of hunting more than bear hunting. Anti-bear hunting propaganda aside, within the hunting community especially misconceptions about the edibility and safety of bear meat run rampant and one only needs to spend a brief period of time perusing hunting forums to read enough conflicting “evidence” about the qualities of bear meat to walk away more confused than when you started.
The reality is black bears are one of the most widespread and more importantly useful animals available to hunters in North America. The meat of a spring or fall mountain bear is utterly delicious, the hides can be turned into robes, blankets, or hats and bear fat is one of the most underrated and underutilized components of all the game species open to hunting in North America.
Are there numerous reports of “wormy” or poor tasting “fish bears”? Of course, but there are also many accounts of moose or elk meat that wasn’t fit to be turned into a dog’s chew toy. As is the case with any game meat, poor field care or a lack of capability in the kitchen more often than not is to blame for a bad experience with black bear meat. Are there exceptions? Absolutely, but like everything in Nature what you eat is what you get and when it comes to mountain bears that live far away from salmon-bearing streams or the smorgasbord afforded by dumps and landfills, the meat can be some of the most succulent you’ve ever tasted. These bears thrive on greens, berries, insects, larvae and large and small game and when taken care of properly black bear meat is a fantastic addition to your freezer.
Photo credit BC Hunting Blog
Add in the fact that they are fun as hell to hunt and offer excellent spot and stalk hunting opportunities throughout much of their Western range and you have a big game animal that deserves to be on every mountain hunter’s list as the spring thaws re-open our favourite high country haunts. And if you’re new to mountain hunting, there are few animals that will afford you as many stalking and learning opportunities as you’ll experience on a mountain spring black bear hunt.
From nose to tail, black bears are a game species that offers succulent meat, lustrous hides in a variety of colour phases (depending on where you hunt), and fat so versatile that it could be considered the Swiss Army Knife of the wild game world. Long before the availability of vegetable or corn oil, wild game fat and especially bear fat was a do-all staple of both the First Nations tribes and European settlers and is still highly valued across the northern latitudes of Russia and many of the Scandinavian countries. Spring bears will obviously not have the same fat composition as a bear taken in the fall due to their recent emergence from hibernation but nevertheless, it’s worth taking what you can if you’re lucky enough to cut a bear tag this spring.
Bear fat can be rendered and used as a replacement for lard in cooking and baking, as a salve for the skin, as a weatherproofing treatment for leather, as a saddle conditioner, as a mosquito repellent, as a base ingredient in DIY soap and even as lamp and gun oil. If you even remotely consider yourself a “mountain man” (or woman) you need to learn to use bear fat.
In the links below you’ll find methods and recipes for rendering and utilizing bear fat to its full extent but these just scratch the surface of the usefulness of bear fat. With a little online research, you’re sure to find even more methods or applications for one of Mother Nature’s true gifts for the outdoorsman or woman. So if you’re not a bear hunter and think bears are only valuable for their trophy status or at best as a rug on your floor, we beg to differ. There are few animals on this planet that offer such a wide variety of benefits after the kill. It is high time Ursus americanus gets the respect it deserves.
Field and Stream – How to Render Bear Fat
Cate Hill Orchard – Bear Fat Salve
Musings from the North – Bear Tallow Soap (the recipe says beef tallow but they replace this with bear tallow)