ANCHORAGE - Federal and state wildlife officials are investigating whether three men found in Prince William Sound with black bear gall bladders and legs violated laws prohibiting the shipment of illegally taken game.
At least 10 black bears in Prince William Sound were found choked to death in cable snares over the summer. Wildlife protection officers believe they were killed illegally so their gall bladders and paws could be sold as medicine in Asia.
The three men, all from Anchorage, were caught last month with a cooler full of gall bladders and bear legs aboard a new 22-foot aluminum boat, police said. None of the men has been charged. Police would say little about the three men except that they believe more people may have been involved.
State and federal officers flew into the sound on a tip from biologists doing stream surveys. The biologists happened to land their Piper Super Cub next to the suspects, officers said.
Pacific Rim nations, particularly Korea, crave dehydrated bear bile as a traditional cure-all. Sellers can get from a few hundred dollars to $3,000 per gall bladder, making them worth more than their weight in gold, according to proponents for tougher federal laws restricting their trade.
Harvesting gall bladders from black bears has become a big business in the United States, from Virginia to Alaska, as the population of Asian bears has declined. Congress is considering legislation aimed at a nationwide ban on the sale of black bear gall bladders.
Using nooses made from eighth-inch steel aircraft cable to snare black bears is a breach of state hunting laws.
"In many people's eyes, it would be viewed as being cruel as well," said Burke Waldron, an investigator with the Alaska State Troopers Wildlife Investigations Bureau.
State law allows a hunter to bag one black bear a year in Prince William Sound. Selling bear parts is illegal, even if the animal was killed in a legal hunt. Authorities said the bear-snaring operation had nothing to do with hunting.
The suspects hung snares from trees along bear trails leading to salmon streams on Evans, Bainbridge and Chenega islands, troopers said. Bears walked into the loops, which would tighten like a tourniquet as the animals struggled.
The men cut open the bears' bellies to harvest the gall bladders and, in some cases, hacked off the animals' limbs, officials said. They ferried the pieces in coolers aboard a brand new 22-foot Hewescraft boat, which they launched from Whittier.
Investigators turned to the boat's onboard Global Positioning System device for clues. They backtracked to waypoints programmed into the device, where they found dead bears in various stages of decay.
"We've located 10 kills," Waldron said. "We've recovered eight gall bladders and several paws, maybe 15 of those."
There could be more, he said. The suspects hired lawyers and have not been talking to authorities.