WOODLAND PARK, N.J. (AP) - All those black bears that hunters took out of the woods this week have to wind up somewhere, and the dinner plate and the living room floor are two of the more likely destinations.
During the state’s annual hunt in a week that saw persistent fair weather, hundreds of bears were shot and hauled out of the woods in an expanded hunting zone. What happens to all those carcasses?
The butcher shop is the first place most hunters go to reap a bounty of bear meat, a delicacy to some palettes.
But what makes the black bear such a prized catch is the fur. And that’s where George A. Dante comes in. He runs Wildlife Preservations in Woodland Park, a taxidermy that regularly does work for the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution.
Dante, a Hackensack native, is an artist who is enthralled with wildlife. His earliest recollection, he said, is sitting at a table and drawing animals.
Taxidermy, Dante said, is an art that dates to the Middle Ages. Some of the most famous naturalists, like John J. Audubon, began as taxidermists, he said.
“Through our work, we want to make sure this animal is immortalized,” Dante told The Record (https://bit.ly/1QkXYGI). “We like to think that what we do is honoring the animal.”
A few years ago, the company mounted the biggest black bear ever hunted in New Jersey- an 829-pounder taken out of Jefferson Township in Morris County. The mounted bear now stands at the Pequest Trouth Hatchery, run by the state Division of Fish and Wildlife in Oxford Township in Warren County.
This week, the company worked on seven bears brought in during the current hunt, Dante said. The first step is to remove the fur from the carcass. The hide is then salted to draw all the moisture out.
The eyes and the teeth are removed and will be replaced by glass replicas. Once the hide is dry, it is shipped to a tannery, where it will be processed and preserved.
Dante’s assistant, Rod Baker, is a naturalist from Canada. Baker, who has been doing taxidermy for many years, also knows a natural tanning process used by the Eskimos and Native Americans.
That process involves using the bear’s brain as a tanning agent. The brain is turned to paste on smeared on the hide. The oils are released into the hide and soften it naturally.
“This was the original way to tan a hide and it works perfectly,” Baker said. The treatment is available to customers who request it, he said.
Months later, the hide is shipped back to the Woodland Park studio, where Dante and his crew go to work again, using a liquid adhesive to attach the hide to a mount and stitching it together with needlepoint, a process that takes several days.
The process takes time and money- usually about a year from the moment the bear is brought in. Costs vary depending on the animal and the mount, but generally run between $3,700 and $10,000.
To Dante, a mount that has been properly rendered is a great work of art, akin to a great painting. Dante called working on a mount “a spiritual experience.”
“What it does is bring the experience of nature inside,” Dante said. “To do this, you really have to love nature. And that’s true for hunters, too.”
The annual statewide hunt may belie the fact black bears are a protected species in New Jersey, and it is illegal to sell the meat, the fur or any of the body parts. It’s all right for a hunter to give the meat away, or send the fur out to be made into a rug, but no one can sell it.
It can take as long as four hours to field-dress a dead bear, drag it out of the woods, load it onto a pickup truck and pass through the check station, which makes getting to the butcher a race against time in unseasonably warm weather.
“With the weather this warm, it’s important to keep the bear cool,” said John “JB” Person of Game Butchers, a Hunterdon County-based family business that has been serving hunters for 35 years. Daytime temperatures stayed mostly in the 50s this week, and are expected to head into the 60s this weekend.
“It’s best to fill the body cavity with ice and put a tarp over the bear to keep it cool,” Person said. Without proper cooling, bear meat will begin to spoil in about six hours, he said.
All week, hunters have brought in bear and deer to the butcher, on Route 31 in an area that was once all farms. A taxidermist out back skins the bear to remove the hide.
By the time the bear gets hoisted onto a meat hook, its head and its paws have been removed. Person goes to work on the thick layer of fat- which accounts for about 50 percent of the animal’s weight, he said.
When Person is done slicing, the once-rotund bear has been paired down to lean meat. “Underneath the fat, the bear looks like a bodybuilder, all muscle,” Person said.
Person removes a flattened slug from the bear’s front quarter and examines it in the light. He knows that the meat around a wound is the first to spoil, and he cuts that away.
Bear meat tends to be greasy, thanks to all that fat. But a pot of bear stew simmering on the stove reveals the meat to be sweet and tender.
“You treat it like pork. You cut it like pork. And it tastes like beef,” Person said with a shrug. He’ll give the customer anything he wants: roasts, chops, hot dogs, sausage or jerky.
Behind the meat room is a smokehouse. It’s a big metal container, actually- fueled by cherry wood, which gives the meat its flavor.
The buzz among hunters is that they’re not seeing as many deer in the woods- which is due, perhaps, to warm weather and an abundant acorn crop. Person said he normally processes about five times as many deer as bear, but this year, it is running almost even.
As of Friday, hunters had killed nearly 400 bears during the six-day firearm season that is scheduled to end at sundown today.
The total already has surpassed last year’s hunt, when 272 bears were killed, and could go much higher.
Under the new black bear management policy, the state may extend the season by four days if the number of tagged bears killed is less than 20 percent of the total. As of the end of Thursday, 15 percent of the 390 bears killed were tagged.
Bob Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the decision to extend the season would be made Sunday. If the bear hunt is extended, it will likely resume on Wednesday, he said.
Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), https://www.northjersey.com
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