ANCHORAGE (AP) -- 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 this 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.
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.
None of the men has been charged.
Pacific Rim nations, particularly Korea, crave dehydrated bear bile as a traditional cure-all. Sellers can get anything 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 law 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.
Police would say little about the three men except that they believe more people may have been involved.
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. 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.
''There was an electronic trail we could follow in their GPS,'' said Lt. Steve Bear, commander of state Wildlife Protection's area detachment. ''This is a case of a lifetime for a game warden. You just don't see this quantity of animals killed at one time.''
''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.
Samples taken from the recovered bodies, organs and limbs were sent to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lab in Ashland, Ore., for genetic testing. Authorities want to know if DNA from the pieces match the bodies. If not, it would mean more bears died.
Fisheries biologists were the first to stumble on the snared bears. They approached one that was still alive. It bolted, and the force snapped its cable tether. The bear ran off still tightly snared around the neck, trailing a length of cable, Waldron said. It has not been found.
Troopers do not believe the snaring spree went on long. The Hewescraft was bought in July.
''You could speculate that this is the first time it was used. You could also speculate that this (poaching) is how they came up with the money for this new boat,'' Waldron said.
In addition to finding gall bladders and bear limbs aboard the boat, investigators said the men had a gross overlimit of rockfish, and will be cited for overfishing.
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