When two undercover Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) officers walked into the Madison Park condo of a suspected bear poacher in December 2008, they were warmly greeted by the man who lives there with an album full of hunting photos, beer, snacks, and a Christmas card made out to the two of them.
According to a search-warrant affidavit filed in King County Superior Court and served on June 8, the WDFW has been on the trail of a Japanese man suspected of hunting bears around Washington State for their gallbladders—slippery, brownish green, bile-filled organs prized in Eastern medicine for their supposed restorative powers—since 2007. Search-warrant documents say WDFW officers confiscated a dozen firearms, four bleached bear skulls, four boxes of "processed game meat," several packages of bear paws, assorted frozen bear parts, and four dried bear gallbladders.
Bear bile is believed to aid the healing of burns, asthma, liver problems, and cancer treatment. There is such a high demand for bear bile in China that bile farms have sprouted up all over the country, producing thousands of kilograms of bile each year, despite the fact that synthetic alternatives are readily available. In 2008, Congress discussed creating the Bear Protection Act, which would have made it illegal to harvest bear viscera, but the legislation died in committee. However, the sale and purchase of bear gallbladder is illegal in Washington State.
According to the affidavit, the WDFW investigation of the man—whom The Stranger isn't naming as he hasn't been charged—began in 2007, after officers received a complaint about an Asian man "possibly poaching in Okanogan County." According to the warrant, immigration records indicate the man is a psychiatrist in Japan "and that he is interested in bringing bear gall back to Japan from the U.S."
WDFW officers initially contacted the man about poaching mule deer near Moccasin Flat in Omak, Washington, the affidavit says, and began an investigation. WDFW were allegedly told by the Saskatchewan Environmental Management agency that in 2005, "the man was actively trying to buy bear gallbladder in Saskatchewan"—going so far as to book a guided bear hunt and asking guides and other hunters for the gallbladder of any bears they killed.
In 2005, the affidavit says, the man was also arrested at the U.S./Canadian border for "attempting to bring protected wildlife and furbearers into Idaho through British Columbia" and "charged with several wildlife crimes." That same year, the affidavit says, the man was arrested at Sea-Tac Airport for attempted exportation of bear gallbladder.
In 2008, WDFW agents placed a GPS tracking device on the man's car and followed his movements around Washington as he traveled to bear-populated areas in Copalis Beach, Grays Harbor, and Humptulips. After two undercover officers befriended the man, WDFW continued to build its case, until a half-dozen officers showed up at the man's condo on June 8 to serve the search warrant.
According to WDFW deputy chief of enforcement Mike Cenci, there's a "great demand for bear galls" because, while substitutes are available, "some cultures fervently believe... nothing can take the place of a wild bear gall." With only 137 WDFW officers statewide, Cenci says poaching is often hard to detect. "Many areas where poaching occurs, it's the outback," he says. "Oftentimes when bears are poached and the goal is to extract the gallbladder, the bear isn't even taken."
No charges have been filed in the current case, and Cenci says it is still under investigation. The man named in the warrant affidavit did not respond to a request for comment.