Globally, six of the eight known bear species are threatened with extinction, according to IUCN.
(Related: "Most Endangered Bears Ranked.")
This dearth of local bears is turning poachers' sights on the plentiful populations in North America, some conservationists say.
In the U.S., 34 states ban trade in bear gallbladders and bile, noted Adam Roberts, vice president of the animal-advocacy nonprofit Born Free USA, who backs the newly proposed bill.
But five states—Maine, Vermont, Idaho, Wyoming, and New York—allow such trade freely.
The rest have a tangled web of statues that sometimes allows the trade of parts taken from bears legally killed elsewhere.
"The majority of states have already banned the trade because they realized that commercialization of wildlife parts leads to poaching," Roberts said.
"The handful that allow the trade serve as laundering points for bear gallbladders taken elsewhere."
This confusing network of laws creates an enforcement nightmare, according to Roberts.
"Once you remove a gallbladder from a black bear, it's impossible to tell where that bear was killed," he said.
The proposed uniform federal legislation could end that problem, he added.
But defining the scope of black bear poaching in the U.S. is extremely difficult, especially with scant evidence.
"It's hard for any enforcement agency to get a handle on wildlife crime. Unlike crimes against people [who report them], you usually have to catch a poacher or trafficker in the act," said Sandy Cleva, spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Law Enforcement.
"However, we do know that while we investigate bear-parts trafficking when it violates federal wildlife laws, we don't see large numbers of these cases each year."
Minnesota's Garshelis notes that legal black bear hunters harvest nearly 50,000 North American bears each year.
"And occasional stings might find a dozen poached bears or something like that," he said. "Something like 20,000 black bears have been [fitted with radio collars] across North America, yet reports of poaching are rare."
Some state officials even say they have more than enough black bears to support a sustainable trade.
Vermont's bear population, for example, is "exploding," said Colonel David LeCours, director of law enforcement for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department in Waterbury.
LeCours said his state has no plans to alter its laws allowing trade in bear parts because there's no need.
For instance, Vermont investigators found that only a few of the gallbladders that hunters could have legally sold in the state made it to market.
"We encourage utilization of all usable pieces [including meat, fur, and bones] of any animal," LeCours said. "We don't want to see any waste that there need not be."
"Now, if the only purpose that an animal was being harvested for is for commercial reasons, then we'd have to reassess that," LeCours said. "But there is nothing to suggest that this has happened."
"Better to Act Now"
Minnesota's Garshelis, the bear biologist, said that his colleagues at wildlife-management agencies and universities know the reproductive rates, natural mortality, and other relevant data that help set a sustainable rate for legal harvest of black bears.
Such management has produced black bear populations that are stable or increasing across North America, even with extensive hunting.
"It's not like some underlying poaching is causing a population reduction. That's not happening anywhere," he said.
"Populations are increasing, most states and provinces have an issue with bear populations—and the biggest issue is human-bear conflicts."
Born Free's Roberts agreed that most states where bears reside have stable or growing populations, but he's concerned about other places.
"States like Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi have small bear populations," he said. "If a poaching operation were to be set up in one of those states, the entire populations could literally be wiped out."
Roberts also believes that the time to protect bears may be before the pressure becomes too heavy on them.
"In 1900 there were an estimated 100,000 tigers in the wild," he said.
"Trade in skins, bones, and organs have led to precipitous declines so that there are only about 4,000 today. Better to act now, before it's too late."
Meanwhile, the proposed bill may be focusing attention on the wrong issue.
Black bear poaching in North America is simply not a significant threat to the species, said Chris Servheen, who coordinates the USFWS's Grizzly Bear Recovery program at the University of Montana.
"There may be isolated areas that it may occur, and the bill could be a benefit to that," said Servheen, who has worked extensively on the Asian bear-parts trade with conservation groups WWF and TRAFFIC.
"But the big story is that the future of Asian bears is really being threatened by the trade in bear parts, and there are almost no conservation efforts going on [in Asia]—no organizational structure, and no funding."
In place of the new bill, Congress should instead allocate funds for Asian nations with declining bear populations, Servheen said.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species does ban the sale or transfer of bear gallbladders, Minnesota's Garshelis added.
But "just having those treaties doesn't work," he said. What's needed is better funding for international efforts to stop the bear-parts trade in areas where the animals are most at risk.
"It takes studies to find out where people are funneling all of these products, and it takes better law enforcement—and those things require more funding."
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES