The easiest way to remove a gallbladder from a black bear, according to hunters, is to start a deep slit from just above the waistline and cut straight towards the lowest rung of the rib cage.

But first, one has to catch the bear.

Although Oregon voters passed an initiative in 1994 to outlaw bear hunting with hounds (and narrowly re-affirmed that law two years later), using hunting hounds is still the easiest way to chase the bears down. Baying and snipping, the hounds will run a bear up a tree. From there, the 400-pound animals are easy targets. Hunters recommend first shooting the bear in the mouth, then knocking off the jaw, so that once it's on the ground, the bear won't snap at the hounds.

For the pure sport of it, and for the money that can be earned on the black market, the risks are worth it, according to bear poachers. A single gallbladder can fetch $400 from the black market in Eugene, Portland, or Seattle, or--most commonly-- when shipped to Korea. Moreover, with millions of acres of remote forest blanketing Oregon, and only a handful of state police in the Fish and Game division, the chances of being caught are literally about the same as discovering a needle in a haystack.

In order to remove the prize--the pink gallbladder--poachers usually perform a ghoulish, back-country surgery: with a shoelace or strip of duct tape, poachers will separate the fist-sized gallbladder and quickly slice it free. Like a wiggling goldfish, the gallbladder will still be warm and slippery. Then they tuck the gallbladder into a plastic bag and slide it down the front of their pants. If stopped by a game warden, hunters say they never pat you "down there." Often, a paw is hacked off, as a macabre sales receipt to prove the gallbladder truly came from a black bear, and the carcass is left to rot.

Eight years after Oregon voters outlawed bear hunting with hounds, and four years after the Oregon Fish & Game Division knocked out one of the largest black bear trading rings in the country, conservationists warn that the pressures on American black bear populations in the Pacific Northwest have not lessened. The demand for illegally killed bears, especially for their gallbladders, which are used for medicinal purposes in southeast Asian countries, continues to pluck thousands of the animals each year from the pine forests of the Pacific Northwest. And as new, vogue uses for the gallbladder emerge in Korea--such as in cosmetics and as hangover remedies--it seems as if the illicit demand for American black bears will only continue to climb.

Yet so far, bear populations have been able to withstand the threats. At first glance, such reports would seem like positive news; but the handful of animal activists working to protect the American black bear say the lack of any alarming or urgent news about the American black bear may very well be the downfall for the species.

Over the past century, conservationists have watched as other healthy animal populations--the African elephant, the Siberian tiger, the Great White shark, the Dodo bird--plummeted, when their parts, hide, and plumage became marketable.

Ten years ago, fish and wildlife agents saw a dramatic leap in the demand for American black bears. Over the previous years, with the voracious appetite for gallbladders in southeast Asia, the seven different species of bears throughout the region dropped to frighteningly small numbers. Undeterred, poachers looking to fill this demand turned their attention to the abundant American black bear population--the bulk of which roam the land between northern California and Alaska.

Although the black bear population in North America seems to be holding its own, conservationists say that this supply and demand is an uneasy equation that leaves game wardens, black bears, and themselves playing a desperate and doomed game against market demands. With bear reproductive rates slow to replace their populations, even a minor increase in the demand--just an extra 100 bears poached a year in Oregon--could offset this balance and send the bear population into a headlong dive towards extinction. Why, then, is no one listening?

Conservationists worry that no one will react until it is too late, that the American black bear could be the next species to join the growing list of endangered animals.

Gallbladders on the World Market

One of the most difficult aspects to understand about the trade in animal parts is the sheer dichotomy between the awe of the natural prowess of an animal, and a complete disregard for that very animal's survival. Rhinos have been slaughtered for the alleged aphrodisiacal powers of their horns, and Great White sharks hunted to near-extinction because of the supposed ability of their fins to cure cancer. Black bear gallbladders also have near-mythical potency.

About the size of a fig, bear gallbladders are dried and ground up into a powder. In Korea, which is believed to be the location of the largest gallbladder market, bear gallbladders and bile are sold as an antidote to hangovers. Traditional Tibetan doctors use bear galls and bile as an ingredient to treat "hot" ailments like burns, fevers, sprains, and swelling. (Not surprisingly, like cocaine cut with powdered sugar, about half of the actual trade consists of pig gallbladders, which contain none of the actual acidic qualities of, but closely resemble, bear gallbladders.)

The trade in endangered species and illegally hunted animal parts stands at an estimated $25 billion annually--second only to the drug trade in its scope, but perhaps more undetected and certainly less monitored. Black bears are unique because they are one of the few animals that are killed in America and then smuggled abroad. It is easy, according to U.S. custom officials, to sneak a gallbladder across state lines or out of the country.

"I know of no other species where there is an illegal trade problem comparable to that of bear gall; bear gall is small, profitable, and easy to smuggle," explains one U.S. wildlife enforcement agent, who works on covert operations to catch smugglers and wished to remain anonymous. They have found the fist-sized gallbladders floating in bottles of whiskey and submerged in jars of chocolate.

Because some nations and American states still allow for the sale of bear parts and gallbladders, it is impossible to determine whether the galls were taken legally or not. In spite of international treaties, the worldwide trade in animal parts is fluid, and relentlessly looking to sneak through the cracks. One government agent who monitors animal trade says that Korean magazines and newspapers openly advertise financed trips to America in order to smuggle back black bear gallbladders. According to TRAFFIC, a branch of the World Wildlife Fund that watchdogs animal smuggling, one such ring was busted in California in 1994 after earning $600,000 in only a few years.

Moreover, black bear hides may be sold legally in eight states, and gallbladders are still legally sold in New York. That means a poacher may kill a bear in Washington or Oregon, and ship off the hide and gall bladder for sale in New York City. Several years ago, one wildlife investigator reported spotting 2,000 gall bladders at one time in New York City's Chinatown; that number is approximately half of New York state's entire black bear population.

The Al Capone of Bear Hunting

Enforcement of black bear poaching is nearly impossible, say patrol officers. The nationwide estimate of bears illegally killed each year varies widely from 2,000 to 40,000. "It's awfully hard to quantify an illegal activity," laments one enforcement agent.

One means of calibrating the flow of illegal parts is to look at what passes through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory located in the bucolic hills of Ashland, Oregon. Dubbed "the Scotland Yard of animal forensics," most animals hides and parts on their way for use as evidence in federal cases detour through the Ashland lab. But Dr. Ed Espinoza, deputy lab director, admits his hands-on experience with analyzing gallbladders provides only a slippery grip on the precise size of the illegal trade.

Dr. Espinoza says the lab routinely analyzes gallbladders seized by agents about twice a month. But these seizures can range from two gallbladders to 60 in a single catch. This means that U.S. attorneys prosecute the poaching of somewhere from 24 to 720 bears each year; hardly a precise figure or a means of estimating the scale of the illicit bear trade in America.

To further muddle the picture and law enforcement efforts, Oregon permits a legal hunt--one in the spring and another in the fall--for roughly 2,000 bears each year. In Oregon, these bears may only be taken for trophies, and it's illegal to sell their parts. On May 31, the end of the most recent hunting season, it's believed that some 300 bears were legally killed. In October, there's an even larger hunt.

But enforcement agents admit that an equal or larger number of bears are probably taken illegally. In January, a joint effort between officers from the eastern reaches of Oregon--in Pendleton and LaGrande--and a group of Washington Fish & Wildlife officers busted Michael Mead, the owner of M&M Archery in Kennewick, Washington. Although game officials estimate that anywhere from 200 and 2000 bears are killed each year in Oregon, this was only the third significant bust in the past five years.

One wildlife agent admits they usually just "stumble onto" poachers. After shadowing Mead for two years, agents finally found enough incriminating evidence to prosecute; but they won't admit how they first suspected Mead of illegally hunting bears.

"Like any illicit commodity, like drugs," says a U.S. enforcement agent, "if you sold only to people you knew and trusted, you wouldn't go to jail, but you probably wouldn't get rich." He adds, "the greedier someone gets and the more people they involve, the more likely someone is going to drop a dime on them."

In the Mead bust, four bears were found in various states of disrepair at different taxidermy stores. But agents were unable to find any evidence indicating that Mead was trafficking parts or gallbladders, or gaining anything more than the illicit thrill of hunting big game. Mead is currently awaiting trial for non-tag black bear hunting and illegal bear baiting.

"[Bear poachers] are so mobile, they are hard to track," says Lt. Walt Markee of the Oregon State Police. Four years ago, Lt. Markee was the lead investigator for the biggest bust ever in Oregon for black bear poaching. In 1998, Markee had been tracking one hunter, Ray Hillsman, in southern Oregon for a few years, but could never pin any concrete evidence on him. At the time, he was known to some in law enforcement circles as "the Al Capone of bear hunting." Every time they stopped him in the woods, he would smugly explain he was (legally) hunting coyote; they once even issued him a citation and a one-year probation, but could never find definitive evidence to connect him to any of the black markets branching off the I-5 corridor.

It's believed he slaughtered 50 to 100 bears annually for ten years before his arrest in 1998. A boastful day laborer, Hillman hunted throughout the labyrinth of the Umpqua River region nearly every weekend with three close friends--a 30-year-old pipe-fitter, a 24-year-old farmer, and a 20-year-old logger.

Lt. Markee finally received a break when an acquaintance of Hillsman called an animal hotline sponsored by the state police; the man left his name, phone number, and, after several nervous meetings, agreed to participate as an informant--work that included following an armed and sometimes angry Hillman deep into the woods to hunt bears. The informant said he was disgusted by the "unethical hunting."

Since many poachers are long-term residents of small towns, it is nearly impossible to set up an undercover identity, explains Lt. Markee. It would take years to establish a fake identity and assure the alleged poacher that the new person is trustworthy. Anonymous tips and the rare, once-in-a-career informant working undercover--someone willing to turn on a lifelong friend--are about the only ways to catch poachers red-handed.

With the help of their informant, wiretaps, and hundreds of weekend hours spent monitoring Hillsman's movements, Lt. Markee finally amassed enough evidence. On May 4, 1998, more than 100 state police officers simultaneously served 16 warrants at 16 different sites throughout Oregon. They had to time the arrests perfectly--by walkie-talkie and cell phone--because Lt. Markee had discovered exactly how tightly-knit the bear poaching market was; they knew as soon as one person was arrested, the others would be tipped off.

From the Day n Nite Market just north of Salem, where bear parts were stored in the ice cream freezer--right alongside the Klondike bars--to 17 gallbladders in the possession of an Asian businessman in Eugene, to one gallbladder submerged in a tub of chocolate pudding in one of the hunter's freezers, and a calendar of bear kills at another hunter's place, Lt. Markee captured a warehouse of evidence. Three summers ago, Hillsman was convicted on federal racketeering charges and for illegally hunting and selling bear parts; he received an 18-month sentence--the longest ever for a bear poacher.

When asked if, by convicting Hillsman, they won the battle and the war against black bear poaching, Lt. Markee laughs. Hillsman was released last spring. He has a five-year probation from hunting and must report to a probation officer. But even with such heightened surveillance, Lt. Markee is not willing to disclose whether or not Hillsman is suspected of poaching again. "His name pops up from time to time," Lt. Markee says elusively.

Pete Nyland, the senior resident agent for the U.S. Fish & Game Service, reiterates this belief that bear poaching is resilient. Nyland, who has worked with wildlife agencies for nearly 20 years, adds, "Very rarely does it not rebound; you'll shut them down for a while" He pauses without completing his thought. Nyland will not say whether or not there are any current investigations into bear poaching, but adds, "If you have a void, someone will fill in. It is driven by demand."

Protection Denied

In spite of the pressures from poaching, American black bear populations hover around 25,000. Without a dire and urgent population crash, explains Adam Roberts of the D.C.-based Society for Animal Protective Legislation, it is difficult to motivate voters and legislators alike to pass sweeping conservation measures.

"The excuse that I hear is the population can withstand it; that's an easy out," asserts Roberts. "But why wait, when we know what happens with inaction?"

Since 1994, when pressures began to intensify on American black bears, Roberts has worked with Congressional representatives and Senators to pass the American Black Bear Act, a law that will prohibit the interstate commerce in bear parts and create federal penalties for illegal bear hunting. Roberts insists that he has steadily made headway over the past eight years. By the beginning of this legislative session, he had an impressive 187 co-sponsors; yet, in spite of this support, the bill has continually been mired down in bureaucracy and belly-flopped in sub-committees. Alaska Senator Ron Young, who chairs the Resource Committee, was one of the notable names who helped kill the bill.

"He has just dug his heels in," explains Roberts. "His reasons are insane. Alaska already has a prohibition on (selling) parts; Senator Young fears the slippery slope--that this is the first step towards stopping hunting; that this law will somehow hurt sport hunters."

In February, Roberts believed he got the break he was looking for. Along with six other animal protections, the bill was attached as a legislative rider to the Farm Bill. Roberts shrugs off the irony that a bill meant to subsidize farms--one of the primary punching bags for animal activists--was potentially the very savior for wild animals. But after unanimously passing the House, the bill was pulled aside into a senatorial subcommittee, and Sen. Young removed all the animal protection measures like unsightly warts. When the Farm Bill passed in mid-May, the Bear Protection Act had again been sent to the trash heap.

"This is a study in how one person can hold up a simple bill," concludes Roberts. He pledges to re-introduce the bill, but knows he must again try to outmaneuver Senator Young and convince another group of legislative representatives and aides that the black bear populations--in spite of their current health--are in dire need of protection.

"If we don't act now, in ten years, everyone will be forced to jump on the bear protection bandwagon." He pauses. "I'll still be here, but I hope that it doesn't come to that."