5 Alaskans Charged with Poaching

INVESTIGATIONS: Gallbladders of 14 animals were to be sent to Asia

Peter Porco / Anchorage Daily News / February 20, 2004

At a news conference Thursday, U.S. Attorney Tim Burgess announced the indictment of seven people connected with the illegal killing of black bears and the illegal harvesting or sale of black bear parts. He said 14 bears were killed in two cases.

The five suspects, all from Anchorage, were involved in two apparently unrelated conspiracies that resulted in at least 14 black bears being taken in 2002 and 2003, federal authorities said.

Federal and state law enforcement agencies, meanwhile, are investigating other poaching cases involving as many as 50 other black bears in the state, according to U.S. Attorney Timothy Burgess.

Burgess and other officials Thursday declined to give any details about those other 50 bears and who might be under investigation.

The current charges represent, to date, the largest known illegal kill of black bears in Alaska for the purpose of marketing their gallbladders, officials said.

In the first of two indictments filed in U.S. District Court, Kwan Su Yi, 32; Tae Won Ro, 33; and James H. Moon, 26, were each charged with conspiracy, attempted export and sale of illegally taken wildlife, and making false statements in violation of the federal Lacey Act.

The indictment charges them with snaring and dismembering 10 black bears in Prince William Sound in the summer and fall of 2002. It says gallbladders stored in the freezer of one of the defendants, Yi, were to be sent to Korea.

In the second indictment, Chi Ung Kim, 82, and Kil Young Chu, 69, were each charged with conspiracy and sale of illegally taken wildlife. The indictment says the pair snared and shot four bears on the Kenai Peninsula from May to June 2003.

The maximum penalties for each of the five men are five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of probation, according to Burgess.

Two other people, including an air taxi operator, were charged in separate cases Thursday with misdemeanor offenses related to the killing of black bears and the export of their parts.

Dehydrated bear bile is believed by some people in China, Korea and Japan to have medicinal value. Gallbladders can bring from $500 to $4,000 each and have been sold for as much as $20,000, said Stan Pruszenski, special agent in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.

The gallbladders are part of a worldwide trade in illegal wildlife of nearly $5 billion, Burgess said.

With Asian bear populations in decline and poaching for black bear parts going strong in the Lower 48, wildlife enforcement agencies believed it was only a matter of time before Alaska's bears were exploited on a large scale.

"It's sad," said Cam Tooey, the special assistant for Gail Norton, the U.S. secretary of the interior. "This is a systematic and targeted poaching operation in Alaska, where previously nothing of this magnitude had existed."

Statewide, Alaska's black bear population is healthy, officials said. The danger, said Pruszenski of the Fish and Wildlife Service, is that poachers can make a significant impact in a small area -- a particular drainage, for example, or refuge.

Ro, Yi and Moon, those named in the first indictment, are said to have taken 10 bears on privately owned Chenega Island and at Bainbridge Passage, part of Chugach National Forest.

Ro and Yi would motor out from Whittier in a new 22-foot Hewescraft and set snares that would trap bears in nooses of one-eighth-inch aircraft cable hanging from trees. They and Moon later would visit the sites, the indictment charges, "then remove the legs, heads and gallbladders" from the bears.

In mid-September 2002, biologists doing stream surveys happened on a bear caught in a snare. The bear was still alive and bolted, snapping the cable and running off. The biologists eventually landed their plane next to the Hewescraft and summoned Alaska State Troopers, who found a cooler full of bear parts.
The second indictment charges Kim and Chu with flying from Homer to Swan Lake in Chugach National Forest in May 2003, and from Anchorage to Big Indian Creek in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in June to illegally kill bears.

The men smeared "substantial quantities of grease on trees and along game trails" to lure the bears to the wire snares they set, the indictment charges. When they visited the snares days later, they shot the bears, removed the valuable parts and buried the carcasses, it says.

The discovery of a carcass by hikers led eventually to the two men, according to assistant U.S. attorney Steve Skrocki, who declined to be more specific.

To get the best possible price for gallbladders, the sellers must authenticate that the parts come from wild animals, Pruszinski said. Investigators, however, refused to discuss the evidence in the cases and whether the alleged poachers took videos or still photographs of the animals caught in the snares.

In both cases, the men broke Alaska hunting laws. Violation of state hunting laws is a prerequisite for being charged under the federal law, Skrocki said.

The Hewescraft, a rifle and a handgun in the first case and two rifles in the second will be forfeited to the federal government if the men are convicted.

The others charged Thursday are Timothy John Karlovich, 51, and Thomas Ling Ming Cha, 69, both of Anchorage.

Karlovich, owner and operator of JayHawk Air, was charged with conducting a commercial enterprise on national wildlife refuge land without a permit and with general trespass. He is said to have flown Kim and Chu to their snares on at least once occasion.

Cha was charged with transporting black bear gallbladders from South Dakota and Colorado for sale in Alaska between October 1999 and August 2001, in violation of the Lacey Act, the U.S. attorney said.

As of Thursday afternoon, none of the suspects had been served with court summonses, according to Skrocki.

Yi had no comment on the charges. Other defendants could not be reached for comment. Karlovich said Thursday night that investigators had indicated he would not be charged.

"I've been assisting in the investigation and providing them with information," Karlovich said. "I'm a little bit dismayed."

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Daily News reporter Peter Porco can be reached at pporco@adn.com or 257-4582.

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