When Idaho and Wyoming tried opening limited hunting seasons for grizzly bears in fall 2018, opponents instantly dubbed them “trophy hunts.” They claimed no one hunts grizzlies for their meat, and charged that hunters only want the big bear’s skull, claws, and hide for rugs and decorations.
Those who supported the low-impact hunts—one tag in Idaho and 22 tags in Wyoming—felt stung by the sweeping accusations. Grizzlies hadn’t been hunted in the Lower 48 since 1974, and the proposed 2018 hunts were quickly killed in federal court, so who can say “no one eats grizzly meat?”
If you read hunting forums from Alaska where grizzlies are regularly hunted, it seems every other respondent says coastal brown bears (grizzlies inhabiting the state’s coastal regions) smell and taste so foul that they’re inedible, or that they taste as good or better than black bears. Most agree, however, that grizzlies in Alaska’s interior taste much like black bears.
Count MeatEater’s Remi Warren among those who eat grizz, although he concedes his sample size is merely one. Warren first hunted Alaska for Dall sheep at age 20, and has hunted there 14 years straight for deer, moose, caribou, mountain goats, black bears, and brown bears.
First-Hand Taste Tests
During one of those hunts, Warren killed a coastal brown as it fed on a dead, rotting seal. When Warren and his friend Jeremy Ruesink of Rogue Expeditions cooked steaks from that bear and a black bear over a campfire, and ate the meat side by side for comparisons, they agreed the coastal brown tasted better.
Warren eats everything he kills, no matter the reputation of its meat: “I don’t take someone at their word when they say something is inedible,” he said. “When I ask if they’ve tried it, they usually say, ‘No, but that’s what I’ve heard.’ The first time I encountered that thinking was with javelinas. People called them ‘stink-pigs’ and said ‘no one eats them.’ That made me want to try one, and it’s one of the best meats I’ve eaten. And it’s not like I have desensitized taste buds. I know when something tastes bad.”
Brandt Meixell, a waterfowl ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska, doesn’t claim expertise in bear palatability, but he has eaten meat from a coastal brown and an inland grizzly. Meixell, a guest on Episode 13 of the MeatEater Podcast, described grizzly meat as being similar to black bear meat.
“The coastal brown smelled like fish and tasted like something that eats fish. I remember it slow-cooking in a Dutch oven, and the aroma filled the kitchen with an unpleasant fishy smell. We tried making it a few different ways to make it taste good, and we couldn’t.
“The interior grizzly, we slow-cooked part of it as a roast, and I found it very similar to black bear, which I eat fairly often. I thought it was good. It was an early fall bear and had some fat on it, and it was fairly mild.”
David Crowley, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in King Salmon, said he’s eaten meat from three or four coastal bears and “had yet to meet one I could eat.”
Warren doesn’t dispute that some people find coastal bears inedible. After all, he knows of mule deer that failed objective taste tests, too, and notes that a meat’s flavor and texture can vary by the bear’s age, time of year, fat content, and field care after the kill. He and Ruesink, for example, thought Warren’s coastal brown was younger than the black bear they ate for their taste test.
Cultures and History
Warren also said it’s possible North American palates and food expectations differ from other cultures, such as Finland. When Warren visits that country on business, he sees brown bear meat on restaurant menus, and canned brown-bear meat and bear pâté in grocery stores.
“It’s all from hunter-killed brown bears, and I’ve eaten it and it tastes fine,” Warren said. “Those are the same bears they have in Alaska. Some people might find the meat greasy, but I think that can depend on the cut and how much fat you trim off before cooking.”
Kaj Granlund, a Finnish scientist and author, said that several Russian restaurants opened in Finland about 50 years ago, and offer bear meat as a “macho food” specialty on their menus. Finland has a nearly 3 ½-month bear season, which last year produced 219 kills. Therefore, bear meat remains rare table fare for “ordinary people” in Finland, Granlund said, and some Fins remain wary because of the bear’s reputation for eating carrion and carrying the Trichinella roundworm.
Valerius Geist, a Canadian zoologist and retired professor at the University of Calgary, said humans have held distinct tastes and attitudes about bear meats for at least 300,000 to 400,000 years. Geist said meat from black bears is widely acclaimed through history, as are bear species that feed almost exclusively on vegetation. In contrast, meat from bears living heavily on fish and carrion are usually “found wanting,” even though polar bears are eaten regularly by indigenous tribes.
Geist said evidence suggests the early modern humans who replaced Neanderthals in Europe ate cave bears, huge, dish-faced beasts with immense digging arms. However, Geist said no known evidence shows those hunters ate brown bears, the species that replaced cave bears. Geist said cave bears were vegetarians, and feasted on dense root beds growing in deep loess silts flowing and blowing in from nearby massive glaciers.
Likewise, Geist found deep holes dug by grizzlies while working years ago near glaciers in the St. Elias Mountains in the Yukon Territories. “The grizzlies dug into the root beds of Eskimo potato, or Alpine sweet vetch, a legume,” Geist wrote in an email. “The thick roots are woody, but smaller branches, when peeled, … taste like a cross between carrots and parsnips. (I believe) that’s the mystery vegetable cave bears were eating. No wonder their meat would have been fat and sweet like that of the best black bears. … I suspect inland grizzlies gorging on sweet roots, augmented by sweet, succulent alpine grasses, would be quite edible too, compared to their salmon-munching coastal cousins.”
The Rocky Mountain Diet
Joe Kondelis finds these discussions and distinctions interesting and compelling, especially because they suggest that meat from grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of eastern Idaho, northwestern Wyoming, and southwestern Montana should taste fine.
“They basically eat the same diet as our black bears,” said Kondelis, president of the Western Bear Foundation, a hunter-based nonprofit organization.
That’s also how Randy Newberg sees things. He describes himself as the token hunter on a citizens panel that helped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service craft its conservation strategy for managing grizzlies in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming once they’re removed from the Endangered Species List.
“Grizzlies are eating cutworm moths, they’re eating grasses, they’re eating white-bark pine seeds; and those in the greater Yellowstone region eat slightly more meat and carrion than grizzlies in studies elsewhere, but so do the black bears in our region,” Newberg said. “So why would grizzlies here taste any different than our black bears?”
But that’s also where Kondelis and Newberg think hunters must address a gaping hole in their arguments to eventually open hunting seasons for grizzlies: Idaho and Wyoming don’t require hunters to salvage bear meat, even from black bears. Neither do Utah or Nevada.
Therefore, when Idaho and Wyoming proposed grizzly hunts in fall 2018, hunters could have left a bear’s meat behind with no fear of violating wanton-waste regulations. Newberg said that inconsistency caught him off guard. He had assumed every state required hunters to salvage bear meat.
“My whole argument is that we should treat grizzly bears like we treat black bears, but then a Wyoming guy told me they aren’t required to eat black bears,” Newberg said. “That struck me as strange. I grew up in northern Minnesota, and before I turned 20 I had eaten far more black bears than white-tailed deer.
“The hunting community has to look at those regulations,” Newberg continued. “We can’t talk out both sides of our mouths. We can’t say we hunt for food, but it’s OK to roll certain species into a ditch. Like it or not, the dynamic governing society is one we helped create: People don’t like anything to do with hunting if we don’t eat the meat. If we require hunters to salvage grizzly meat, it would lessen one of the hunt’s points of resistance. Some people would still push back on the hunt, but we could take away their ‘trophy hunting’ argument.”
Kondelis said with or without a grizzly season, all Western states should quit treating black bears as varmints and “problem predators.” He said the Western Bear Foundation encourages hunters to salvage bear meat and give it the same care and respect shown to elk, deer, and pronghorn meat. He said black bear meat is extremely versatile, and considers it great for roasts, sticks, sausage, and pulled recipes.
“If you cook it to 160 degrees, you kill any threat of Trichinosis,” Kondelis said. “It’s a sweet-smelling meat in fall. If you talk to any hunter from the East, Midwest, or South who hunts black bears, they all keep and eat the meat. We encourage everyone to pack out their bear meat to show they’re not just interested in its ‘trophy’ parts. I see too many Facebook posts where hunters shoot a bear and write, ‘I killed another elk killer.’ Trying to justify killing an animal and leaving its meat to waste is hateful disrespect that hurts hunting.”
Warren said the meat from all Western bears should be mainstream food among hunters, and thinks most hunters already follow that code. He notes that even though Nevada doesn’t require hunters to salvage bear meat, most do. In fact, the Nevada Department of Wildlife said hunters salvaged the meat of all 17 black bears killed during the 2019 season.
Alaska generally requires hunters statewide to salvage black bear meat, but those requirements vary by region for browns and grizzlies. Crowley reported that hunters killed 1,467 bears in game management units 19, 20, and 21 (central and central-southwest) the past 10 seasons, and salvaged the meat of 347 grizzlies (24%). Meanwhile, hunters in Unit 9 (southwestern peninsula) killed 2,838 coastal browns the past decade and salvaged 123 (4%).
Kondelis said Idaho and Wyoming don’t know how many hunters salvage bear meat, but he suspects it’s low. “It’s something worth studying, documenting and changing,” he said. “Going forward, I think we’ll have to make major changes in our salvage regulations for both bear species before we try the delisting/hunting idea again for grizzlies. Grizzlies are a keystone species, but black bears are important, too.”
Feature image via Tony Bynum.