3 plead guilty of importing illegal bear gallbladders

November 23, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

They were hunters from Maryland, off on another seemingly legal trip to track down bears in Canada. What wasn't legal were the odd souvenirs they tried to take home.

Federal wildlife agents searching through the suitcase of one of three hunters last summer found an unusual collection of highly coveted, illegally harvested bear gallbladders. Each about the size of a small inflated balloon, the nine gallbladders had been sliced out of slain black bears in Saskatchewan, stuffed inside a hunter's boot and packed in a travel bag belonging to Kimberly Scherer of Waldorf.

Her items were searched by federal agents acting on a tip at the Minneapolis airport before Scherer, 37, connected with a flight back to Baltimore in June of last year.

Yesterday, Scherer, with Terrence Beaulac, 39, of Chesapeake Beach and Richard Dempsey, 38, of Lothian, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to illegal importing of animal parts.

The federal violation of transporting restricted animal parts, a rare sight in Maryland courts, is not unheard of across the country, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials and conservationists who track illegal animal traffickers.

"The trade in general is a huge problem in the United States," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States in Washington. "About 34 states prohibit the sale of bear parts, including Maryland. But 16 other states allow the sale.

"Because of a patchwork of state laws, it's very difficult to enforce," he said.

A bear's gallbladder, which receives the bile from the liver and stores it until it is needed in the digestive system to break down fats, had been included as an ingredient in Chinese medicinal soup for centuries, often to try to alleviate pain and fever. The organs can fetch hundreds if not thousands of dollars on the black market, experts say.

In the 1990s, former Maryland Rep. Helen D. Bentley unsuccessfully fought for legislation to ban the export of the animals' gallbladders.

"I thought it was sinful that they would kill black bears for their gallbladder," she said in an interview yesterday. "I think I reintroduced the bill three or four times. I didn't like the idea that they were killing these beautiful animals and making soup out of them."

Gallbladder poachers, Bentley added, "should be thrown in jail."

That's unlikely to be the fate for the three Maryland hunters convicted yesterday.

Scherer pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and Beaulac and Dempsey to a felony, which carries a prison term of up to five years. But the U.S. attorney's office recommended five years' probation for all three defendants, and Judge William D. Quarles Jr. indicated he is likely to follow that recommendation at sentencing in February.

According to court records, Dempsey asked Scherer to carry the gallbladders in her suitcase to Baltimore on June 6, 2005.

But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents had earlier received "intelligence" about the group, saying that the threesome had previously smuggled animal parts into the country for resale.

"I wouldn't say it's an unusual case. It's not something we get involved in every week or every month," said Pat Lund, the resident agent in charge of Fish and Wildlife's law enforcement office in St. Paul, Minn. "I would say that it's a commonly occurring crime, and we don't just find out about it."

Court papers say Beaulac and Dempsey admitted to knowing that importing the gallbladders was illegal. The men planned to sell the gallbladders to a man in Maryland for use in Chinese herbal medicine. Authorities never apprehended that man, who they believe left the state.

"It's really a shame," said the hunters' attorney, Thomas F. Ellis III, about his clients' predicament after the hearing yesterday. They fully cooperated with authorities after their arrest and had their case moved to Maryland so they could plead guilty, according to Ellis.

The estimated value of each bear gallbladder was between $50 and $100, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Romano. An average-size bear gallbladder can command $3,400 in Asia, according to the Humane Society.

But Subhuti Dharmananda, director of the Portland, Ore.-based Institute for Traditional Medicine, believes the global demand for bear gallbladders has shrunk drastically.

"It's mostly banned, and there are other ingredients to use instead," Dharmananda said. "As the older generation passes on, the younger generation won't care about gallbladders."

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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