State wildlife officials are investigating a possible poaching case in which someone removed the gallbladder of a black bear -- which can sell for thousands of dollars in Asia -- after the animal was struck and killed this week by a car in the Lake Tahoe area.
The animal was found with its groin area shaved and gallbladder missing early Tuesday, less than 10 hours after a motorist reported striking the bear and California Highway Patrol officers moved it off the roadway. A surgical glove was discovered next to the bear's mutilated carcass.
"It appears that someone knew what they were doing," said Capt. Mark Lucero of the Department of Fish and Game's Northern Enforcement District.
It is illegal to take parts of dead wildlife left on the side of the road, Lucero said.
"A second violation would be if the gall was marketed on the black market," he added.
The penalty for trafficking in bear parts, a felony, is a $10,000 fine and a minimum six months to one year in prison.
In addition, unlawfully taking parts from a bear is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of several thousand dollars and possible jail time, officials said. The discovery of the missing organ was at least the third instance since May involving bear parts in the state.
On July 28, Fish and Game officials found a bear paw with some claws removed in an illegal marijuana grove in Tulare County.
In May, a bag of severed black bear paws turned up on the doorstep of a home in Riverside. Officials were not sure if they were intended to be sold, eaten or kept as trophies. An investigation determined the bears had been hunted legally, and there was no proof that anyone had tried to sell the parts.
The state allows hunting of a certain number of black bears in the fall, but hunters are required to have licenses and register their kills with the state. California prohibits anyone from buying or selling bear parts, even if they are imported from other areas. Peddling bear parts is illegal in 34 states, including California, but they are highly prized in Asian markets. The gallbladder is "by far" the most often stolen part of a bear because it is very popular in traditional Chinese medicine as an aphrodisiac or cure for a variety of ills, said Lt. Kathy Ponting, who leads the Fish and Game unit that investigates illegal commercialization of wildlife.
"That's where the money is," Ponting said. In December, she said, her team tracked down a San Diego man who was offering to buy bear gallbladders for $150 to $500 from hunters. He was planning to sell them for up to $4,000 in Vietnam, Ponting said. Instances in which bears have had organs removed are rare, but persistent, Ponting said. She estimates that the department hears fewer than 10 cases a year.
A motorist called the CHP shortly after 10 p.m. Monday to report that he and at least two other drivers had struck a bear on California 89 between Squaw Valley and Truckee.
CHP officers moved the bear's carcass, reported to weigh 200 pounds, to the side of the road later that night and requested that Caltrans workers remove it.
The next day, a passing motorist called the Bear Education Aversion Response League, a nonprofit organization based in Homewood. Ann Bryant, founder and executive director of the group, sent two volunteers to the scene about 7:30 a.m.
Bryant, who said her group is dedicated to peaceful coexistence between humans and bears, called the scene "really gruesome."
"We were the first ones on foot close enough to see what was going on," Bryant said. "He was lying flat on his back, as if he was on an operating table."
Photos taken by the volunteers showed that the bear's gallbladder and possibly its genitals had been removed. The volunteers also found a surgical glove next to the carcass.
Bryant said that since the beginning of 2007, her group has gotten 87 calls about dead bears found near roads. On occasion, she said, vandals have cut off the heads or paws from bears. This week, however, was the first time they encountered a gallbladder missing from a bear killed in a vehicle collision, she said.
Bryant notified state wildlife officials, who found the bear carcass just as Caltrans workers were putting it into a landfill in the northern part of Lake Tahoe. The Fish and Game investigator confirmed that the gallbladder had been removed and that someone had shaved the area around the incision, Lucero said. The gender of the bear was not immediately apparent, he said.
Fish and Game officials recovered the surgical glove at the side of the road, Lucero said. It was sent to the state Department of Justice to be tested for fingerprints or other evidence.