LANSING — Government agencies and advocacy organizations are working to make sure the sun sets on Michigan bear poaching.
The Department of Natural Resources arrested four people in early August for illegally purchasing and selling black bear parts.
And the House Natural Resources Committee has passed a set of bills that call for stricter poaching penalties. The measures already won Senate approval and await action by the full House.
Overseas demand for bear organs motivates poachers to kill the animals through unlawful methods, whether by hunting off-season or exceeding legal limits, DNR officials said.
An underground market for black bear harvesting is a serious problem, said Lt. Jason Haine, of the DNR’s Law Enforcement Division.
“This is a top-priority issue for us,” Haines said. When the agency receives information about crimes like bear-part commercialization, other problems often take a back seat.
Two Michigan-based undercover investigations triggered the arrests of Tuan Hoa Pham, Hoang Linh-Duy Tran, Hoa Trung Huynh and Hieu Van Hoang, according to the DNR. The woman and three men were charged with illegally possessing and buying bear parts.
Harvesting bear parts is what Haines calls “a steady problem” — one that extends beyond state and national borders.
Michigan United Conservation Clubs, a coalition of outdoor groups, is pushing for stricter punishment.
The organization supports legislation to increase bear-poaching reimbursement rates — restitution to the state — from $1,500 to $3,500 per animal. Hunting license suspensions would increase from three years to five years under bills sponsored by Sens. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, and Dale Zorn, R-Ida. Among the co-sponsors are Sens. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, and Goeff Hansen, R-Hart.
“We’ve always been the ones asking for punishments that get poachers out of the woods,” said Dan Eichinger, MUCC executive director. “We want hunting that is biologically sound. We advocate for protection so we’re not placed in the same basket as poachers.”
MUCC hopes the bill will be on the governor’s desk in no more than three weeks, Eichinger said.
The DNR’s Haines said the pursuit of profit always raises concerns when it comes to protecting resources, while international culture and tradition drive the demand for illicit trading.
“We find that consumers, especially in Asian cultures, believe there’s a medicinal benefit” associated with black bear parts, Haines said.
The World Wildlife Fund says that bile from bear gallbladders provides an active ingredient for traditional medicines used in Asian cultures. Those who follow the practices believe it helps fight colds, inflammation and liver-related diseases, according to literature that dates to 625 A.D.
“We’ve seen raw gallbladders placed in jars of whiskey or cognac for a length of time,” Haines said. “(People) will then drink the mixture with the belief that it serves to heal various types of ailments.”
The investigation also revealed cases where suspects possessed bear paws. Bear paw soup is a cultural delicacy in Asian countries including China, North Korea, South Korea and Japan — another lucrative influence, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
“If there’s a profit associated with any natural resource, there will always be a strain on it,” Haines said. “When we receive information about the illegal activity from an individual, we can try to prevent this sort of thing. We can step in by doing these undercover investigations.”
In the latest case, DNR conservation officers posed as poachers after the department received information about people involved in the trade. Undercover officers offered to sell bear parts to each defendant. The DNR supplied the parts, using remains of bears seized from other investigations or road kill.
Officers never kill or use wild bears for investigations, Haines said.
“The undercover operation allowed us to attack the problem at its source,” Haines said. “As long as poachers exist, the DNR has to exist.”
Still, Haines noted the difficulty associated with such investigations and said it’s hard to identify threats to black bear populations.
“This happens in the shadows,” he said. “Even if we have individuals step forward, it can be hard to judge its degree.”
For now, the DNR has closed that undercover investigation.
A Sault Ste. Marie man has pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing. Three other suspects, who live in Kent County, await court proceedings.
“It’s not an everyday sort of case, but we still want to keep it in check,” Haines said.
The Michigan arrests also drew interest from nearby states. With a larger black bear population than Michigan’s, Wisconsin DNR Bureau of Law Officer Joanne Haas said she understands the risks of trafficking bear parts.
“It’s something we’re going to be watching, especially after seeing this in Michigan,” Haas said. “Our chiefs and officers are well aware of the problem, although we don’t see an immediate increase.”
Haines said public watchfulness can hinder poaching and its adverse effects on natural resources.
“We always encourage people to contact our poaching hotline. Our officers can provide monetary rewards for information,” Haines said. “We know most people will come forward solely for the sake of protecting the resource.”