Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Growth in Poaching Threatens California Bears

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Growth in Poaching Threatens California Bears

Article excerpt

The camera is jerky and the focus occasionally fuzzy, but the videotape is still clear enough to shock.

Three bear poachers - burly men dressed in a motley of camouflage and denim - follow the yammer of baying dogs down a heavily forested slope. They stop at a large fir, where a pack of hounds has treed a black bear.

The bear begins to climb as the hunters gather around the base of the tree. One of them shoots and the bear falls, mortally wounded, squalling like a child. The camera jumps about as bear, hounds and poachers disappear into the brush. Somebody yells, "Shoot 'im again, shoot 'im again!" More shots.

The tape cuts to the hunters hauling the dead bear through the brush to a waiting truck. They pose for pictures, engaging in ribald banter. Then they hoist the bear on a block and tackle and skin the animal.

Bear hunting - with or without dogs - is not illegal in California, provided it occurs during the authorized season by licensed hunters. But this tape was seized as evidence during a California Department of Fish and Game undercover operation conducted against a poaching ring. The video captures an out-of-season bear hunt - one of hundreds that occur in California each year.

Poaching is epidemic in California, and bears are not the only victims. Deer are killed by "jacklighters" - poachers who blind and mesmerize the animals at night with spotlights, shoot them and sell the venison.

Ducks and geese are shot out of season in the Sacramento Valley and marketed to restaurants. Striped bass, sturgeon and salmon are illegally gill-netted in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Hundreds of thousands of abalone are illegally caught each year and sold for $30 to $50 a pound. Bullfrogs are netted in the Central Valley for markets in San Francisco's Chinatown. Hawks, owls and eagles are killed for their feathers and claws, which are used to fabricate kitschy curios and charms.

Cougar, bobcat, tule elk and desert bighorn sheep - all are targets for professional poachers, who kill them for their meat, hides and organs.

In some cases, poaching threatens whole species with extinction. The bighorn sheep, sea otters, abalone and several Southern California reptiles are all threatened, said Mark Palmer, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation.

Defending California's wildlife from this growing slaughter is a thin green line that has never been thinner.

Financing for the Department of Fish and Game is eroding. In 1991, the agency received $23.1 million for law enforcement. That figure fell to $22.9 million last year and $22.5 million this year. Statewide, warden positions dropped to 366 from 375 for the same period.

The department's Special Operations Unit - an undercover force responsible for long-term surveillance and penetration of poaching rings - was slashed from a high of 14 agents in 1988 to only one today. …

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