The spring thaw in southeast Alaska's temperate rain forest awakens many creatures great and small from their winter torpor. But more than ever, it is also bringing a new breed of human hunter to the emerald glades of the Tongass forest - hunters who shoot bears for their gallbladders and paws.
Bear gallbladders and paws are prized objects in Asia: The galls and bile have been used in Asian medicine for centuries and are now also manufactured into luxury cosmetics and used as an aphrodisiac. Paws are considered a gourmet delicacy. So as excessive hunting and loss of habitat have decimated the number of Asian bears, Asian markets have begun to look to the United States, Russia, and Canada for these delicacies - and are willing to pay big money for them.
"This is a global problem. Asian populations of bears are getting wiped out," says Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund attorney Janis Searles.
The sale or export of bear parts has been outlawed in most parts of the United States, but authorities say practically every state with a bear population experiences some underground trade. Hunters are intrigued by reports of bear gallbladders selling for thousands of dollars on the Asian black market.
Even though authorities are aware of the trade, they have had limited success cracking down on illegal smuggling networks. In Alaska, which has the largest concentration of bears in North America, the state's vastness and the limited number of enforcement agents make the work challenging. But officials point to cultural obstacles as well.
"The hardest challenge is that most of the trade is carried out by certain nationalities," says Jim Sheridan, an Anchorage-based US Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement officer. "It's a very close-knit organization and if you're not from that nationality, it's very difficult to infiltrate it."
The few arrests agents have made point to an active trade. According to the Alaska Department of Public Safety and the Humane Society, 43 gallbladders and 283 paws were intercepted in Anchorage in 1991. In 1995, Anchorage authorities discovered 60 galls in a package from Russia bound to Los Angeles.
The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund says South Korea is the largest consumer nation of bear parts in the world, and it wants Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to punish South Korea for promoting the underground trade. If Mr. Babbitt finds that Seoul has undermined a United Nations treaty on trade in endangered or threatened species - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) - US trade sanctions could follow.
And although the department has begun an investigation, Sue Liberman, head of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's CITES enforcement office, says the US would prefer to let South Korea curb the bear industry on its own.
A South Korean embassy official in Washington says Seoul has gotten the message.
"The South Korean government is doing its best to protect endangered animals, not just bears," says diplomat Onhan Shin. "Since the petition was filed, the government has strengthened enforcement of the law banning the import of bear parts."
The US will likely make a decision whether to impose sanctions on South Korea after a June convention of the 130 nations that have signed CITES, says Ms. Liberman. But Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) isn't waiting. He is already leading an effort in Congress to ensure that American bears do not suffer the same fate as their Asian counterparts. Senator McConnell introduced the Bear Protection Act in Congress in February to outlaw the trade in bear parts in the United States. He estimates that 40,000 bears are poached each year in the US.
"The booming illegal trade in bear viscera makes this bill necessary," say McConnell. "I for one cannot stand by and allow our bear populations to be decimated by poachers."