FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Some animal welfare groups want Congress to pass a law banning trade in bear gallbladders, saying it's an action that could help reduce poaching in the United States and overseas.
Sale of the organs already is illegal in Alaska and in most other states. But the bear gallbladders can bring poachers hundred of dollars apiece -- thousands of dollars in some Asian countries.
Practitioners of Asian traditional medicine use bear gallbladders and the bile they produce to treat a variety of ailments.
Alaska authorities have charged several people with trying to sell bear gallbladders over the past decade.
A state bear biologist said the black market doesn't seem to be threatening bear populations in Alaska, but the story is different in Asia where several bear species are considered endangered.
In October, the U.S. Senate approved the ''Bear Protection Act,'' which would ban all domestic sales, import and export of bear ''viscera,'' including gallbladders. The House sent the proposal back to the Senate on a procedural objection.
Several animal welfare groups held a news conference in Washington, D.C., last week to draw attention to the legislation.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals, a U.K.-based group, distributed its recent investigative report on bear farms in China. The report described how farm bears are held in small cages and ''milked'' for bile through surgically implanted catheters. Many bears develop behavior problems and infections, the society's report said.
The report also documented the continued buying of wild bears from endangered populations to resupply the Chinese farms.
The WSPA, along with The Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Welfare Institute, said Congress should pass the bear protection act to stop what they consider an abusive industry and to protect wild bear populations, both in Asia and North America, that are tapped to feed the demand.
The legislation passed by the Senate was also introduced separately in the House. It awaits hearings in both the Ways and Means Committee and the Resources Committee, which is led by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.
Those ''committees failed to act thanks, quite frankly, to Don Young,'' said Adam Roberts, senior research associate with the Animal Welfare Institute.
''Whoever said that from the environmental groups was lying and they had better retract it because this was a trade bill that the Ways and Means Committee had the lead on,'' Resources Committee spokesman Steve Hansen told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
''The bill wasn't even brought to the attention of Chairman Young,'' Hansen said.
Nevertheless, Donna Thiessen, an aide with the Ways and Means Committee's trade subcommittee, said the Resources Committee had primary jurisdiction and should move first.
In Alaska, state law prohibits the sale of parts from black and brown bears, except that black bear fur can be sold in handicrafts. Polar bear fur handicrafts also can be sold, although polar bears are managed by the federal government and only can be hunted by Alaska Natives.
Authorities in Alaska have charged several people with trying to sell gallbladders in the past decade.
Last month, Michael ''Tony'' Roberts of Anchorage pleaded no contest to illegal guiding and unlawful possession of game, among other charges. He had a dozen bear gallbladders that officials said he planned to sell in Korea. Roberts was caught in September after eluding authorities for almost a year.
In January, Anchorage guide James Baum was sentenced to 20 days in jail and fined $1,500 for unlawful possession of grizzly parts. Prosecutors said he attempted to sell a gallbladder at Asian markets in Anchorage.
An arrest warrant remains outstanding for a Fairbanks hunting guide charged nine years ago with trying to sell brown bear gallbladders to an undercover agent. Dennis Paul Mooney pleaded innocent but never showed up for trial.
Despite such cases, Harry Reynolds, a brown bear biologist with the state Division of Wildlife Conservation in Fairbanks, said he and state Fish and Wildlife Protection Division troopers don't believe bear poaching is a major threat to bear populations in Alaska.
''I think in Alaska it's minuscule,'' Reynolds said. ''We have 32,000 brown bears, and I'm not sure how many black bears, but probably an equal number.''
Reynolds, a board member of the International Association for Bear Research and Management, said China's farms appear to have relieved pressure on wild bear populations in Asia, too. Many bears came from Russia, on China's northern border, Reynolds said.
''Nobody can argue that they're humane,'' Reynolds said of the farms. ''But in terms of conservation in that part of Russia, the bottom dropped out of the market and the issue went away.''
The animal welfare groups said Tuesday that they fear China soon will try to lift a ban on trade in several bear species' parts imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. CITES has 154 signatory nations.
Chinese authorities argue that the trade no longer threatens wild populations because bear farms more than meet the demand. A Chinese official noted in the June 2000 issue of the journal Species that the bile powder price in China dropped more than 85 percent recently.
Andrea Gaski, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said she doubted China would succeed in any effort to lift CITES protections. The farms can't prove they aren't taking from wild, endangered populations, she said.
Gaski said some of the trade in North American black bear parts remains legal in the United States and internationally. Black bear populations are healthy and growing in many areas, therefore trade isn't prohibited by CITES if all other laws have been followed.
While 34 states outlaw sales of most bear parts, five states have no restrictions and the remaining states only ban the sale of parts taken from bears killed within their borders.
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