Mike Nizich had 16 bears in his shop last week.
Nizich doesn't have a bear problem. Just the opposite - he's a taxidermist. Spring is the prime season for bear hunting and Nizich has his hands full cleaning, salting and preparing hides for tanning.
Nizich, owner of Rug 'n Rack Taxidermy, also hunts bears, part of a relatively small group of local hunters who enjoy the meat and harvest bears on a regular basis.
"Bear meat is actually really good stuff, but most people are paranoid about eating it," Nizich said. "They're worried about trichinosis, and some people don't like eating a predator."
About 150 black bears are taken each season in game management unit 1C, which includes Juneau, mostly in late April and May. Although black bears are abundant, bears are not particularly popular among hunters.
"Folks usually just want one, for the hide, and that's about it. The meat is not prized like moose or deer," said game biologist Neil Barten.
"There are a portion of hunters who go out every year to get bear, the way we would get a deer," Barten added.
Bear meat has a bad reputation for being gamy, tough and trichinosis-infected. That reputation is not entirely deserved.
"Bear meat is real lean," Nizich said. "If you just throw it in the oven it will be tough. The best way I've found is to put it in a crock pot. A pressure cooker is good - the meat just falls off."
Spring bear is far superior to the meat of bears taken in the fall. Alaska Fish and Game requires hunters to take the meat of bears harvested in the spring, but hunters are not required to take the meat of fall bears.
"In the fall when they're eating fish there is a tendency to have the flavor of meat to change," Nizich said. "At this point they're eating sedges and grasses."
Juneau outdoorsman Tom Dress and his son-in-law bagged a black bear in late May at Slocum Inlet south of town. Dress said his entire family enjoys the meat.
"We try to harvest one or two spring black bears every year," he said. "I find the meat to be real good. We pretty much make burger out of it. If it's a younger bear I'll cut roasts, but mostly we make burger and sausage. It makes a hell of a meat loaf."
He sometimes adds beef suet to the ground meat to richen it. He butchers the bear himself and then pays about $25 to have the meat ground. He said the average 2-to-4-year-old bear weighs 250 to 300 pounds and yields 60 to 80 pounds of meat.
He said fear of trichinosis, a parasite that can infect pork and bear meat, keeps many people away from bear. He recommends cooking bear meat thoroughly - no rare steaks, but said the danger is not as high as folks might think.
"Probably the percent (of trichinosis) is more from brown bears or fall black bears that are eating rotten fish," he said. "Brown bears tend to scavenge more dead animals and rotten carcasses than black bears. The black bear is more of a vegetarian guy, a fish guy."
He said he tried brown bear once. It was a fall bear, and he never gave it a second chance.
"I can't even describe the taste," he said.
Dress is an avid hunter and said he uses as much of an animal as possible. He has the bear hides tanned and the skulls cleaned and has made jewelry from the teeth. He said a fresh hide weighs 50 or 60 pounds, about 20 percent of the bear's weight.
Dress said he considers black bears to be a renewable resource.
"Brownies reproduce at a slow rate, but black bears, we have so many, it's like a population explosion," he said. "Harvesting animals is quite healthy for the population."
Like bear meat, bear hides are in the best condition in the spring.
"You can get a nice October bear, but the hair is thickest in the spring," Nizich said. "The hide, especially when they first come out of the den, is thickest and densest. The ideal is the earliest they come out, from mid-to-late April, depending on where in Southeast you are."
As spring progresses, the bears begin to shed. Bears will rub up against trees and fallen logs, breaking off the longer guard hairs. Hair can be thin or nonexistent in patches. Hunters in the field looking for a prime pelt need to thoroughly inspect the animal through binoculars.
"You have to have a good eye," Nizich said. "They can get a twotone look, or have multiple colors, black, brown, blonde or gray. It looks interesting from a distance, but you get up close it doesn't look all that attractive."
Nizich said although the season extends through the end of June, hunting tapers off around June 10 and the majority of bears show signs of rubbing. That's true for brown bears, too, and about 40 percent of his work is on brown bears. He has clients from all over the state and just under half of his clients are nonresidents.
He prepares the hide for tanning and has that work done at a commercial tannery in Anchorage. Two or three months after he sends a salted and scraped hide north, he gets a soft, tanned hide returned. That's when the artistry takes place, he said.
By carefully stretching, stitching and working the tanned hide, Nizich turns it into a bear rug, a head mount or a live mount. Nizich has mounts on display at the Nugget Mall and in the Juneau Airport, and he and his son Tony mounted the brown bear on display at Juneau-Douglas High School. Tony Nizich also reassembled the entire skeleton of that bear and it is on display at the University of Alaska Southeast Egan Library.
"Nonresidents come up for the hunt of a lifetime, and they want to restore the trophy," he said. "They get their dream, and we put it back into something they can remember their hunt by."
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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