New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once famously opined, "It's like déjà vu all over again." And so it is with bear poaching in America.
Three years after a successful operation in the Shenandoah National Park area of Virginia to uncover bear poaching and the illicit trade in bear parts, notably bear gallbladders, another effective sting operation has been revealed in the region. Operation VIPER (Virginia Interagency Effort to Protect Environmental Resources), announced in January 2004, has documented nearly 500 state violations and more than 200 federal violations by 100 or more people in seven states and the District of Columbia for their roles in this illegal trade. Shenandoah National Park Superintendent Douglas K. Morris appropriately noted, "Commercialization of protected natural resources is a nationwide, worldwide problem, and some of it starts right here in Shenandoah National Park as well as other National Park Sites."
Operation VIPER uncovered evidence that the trade in bear parts from the East Coast, West Coast, and Mid-Atlantic region of the US continues unfettered, involving whole bears, bear gallbladders, paws, and other parts being trafficked to Washington, DC, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, and California. Nationals of the Republic of Korea have been implicated in the trade as the destination of the bear parts in this case (and in many other cases as well).
AWI has long warned that the variations in state laws that regulate the trade in bear parts create an unhealthy incentive for poachers to commercialize bears. Colonel Herb Foster of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) concurs, telling an Associated Press reporter, "We've learned over the years what the impact of commercialization is. The temptation is to overharvest. Wildlife species generally can't sustain a commercial market."
In fact, opponents of federal legislation that had been introduced in previous sessions of Congress to prohibit the commercialization of bear parts in America, the Bear Protection Act, regularly argued that the relative health of the US bear population makes such legislation unnecessary.
However, cases such as the Virginia probe are not isolated, and even Alaska, the state with the largest bear population, is susceptible to poaching and illegal trade.
Five Alaskans were indicted in February for illegally killing bears in the state for the purpose of selling their parts, which were reportedly stored in one of the defendant's freezers. Many of the killed bears were first cruelly snared before being shot. Stan Pruszenski, a US Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent in Alaska told the Anchorage Daily News that the danger of such a poaching operation is that it "can make a significant impact [to the bear population] in a small area."
Despite the fact that Alaska has a ban on the commercialization of bear parts, poaching occurs because gallbladders (and paws and other bear parts) can be smuggled out of the state and sold in other states or countries fraudulently. Alaska's Representative in the US Congress, Don Young, has been largely responsible for ending the progress of the Bear Protection Act in recent years. We hope that cases such as this one in his home state will encourage him to change his mind.