SEN. MITCH McCONNELL STATEMENT
BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
JULY 7, 1998

Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank you and the Members of the Committee for holding these hearings and allowing me to testify in support of S. 263, the Bear Protection Act. This legislation, is aimed at protecting the American bear population from the growing illegal trade in bear parts, in which at least 18 Asian countries are known to participate. The poaching of bears is a national problem that is destined to become worse. Currently, there are enforcement and jurisdictional loopholes, which exist as a result of a patchwork of state laws, that allow this illegal poaching to flourish. I believe that we have a real opportunity, if we act now, to protect the bear populations in this country from individuals seeking to profit from the slaughter and sale of the organs of these magnificent animals.

Mr. Chairman, as you may know, bear viscera, such as gall bladders and bile, is a very popular ingredient in traditional Asian medicine. It is used to treat everything from heart disease to hangovers, and is also popular as an ingredient in luxury shampoos and as an aphrodisiac. Because of the popularity of bear parts in these products, bear populations, including the panda, sloth, sun, and Asiatic black bears have been hunted to near-extinction in Asia. All of these bear populations are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES), Appendix I. This classification is the highest level of protection provided to an animal species. However, these bear populations remain threatened by the high demand and black market trade in exotic and traditional medicine cures. Moreover, American bear species are now in more danger, since the dramatic decline of bear populations outside the U.S. has led poachers to turn to American bears to fill the increasing demand.

I am pleased to report that U.S. bear populations have, for the most part, remained stable. But the increasing trade in bear parts poses a serious threat. It is estimated that the number of black bears in the U.S. is nearly 400,000. Brown bear populations, which include Grizzly, are estimated at 40,000, with less than 1,000 in the lower 48 states.

Each year, nearly 40,000 black bears are legally hunted in 36 states and Canada. Unfortunately, it has been estimated that roughly the same number is illegally poached every year, according to John Doggett, former chief of law enforcement for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This number is expected to increase as the source of Asian bears declines and the demand for bear viscera continues to grow.

According to various reports, including those from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hundreds of bear carcasses are turning up in the U.S. and Canada, completely intact, except for missing gallbladders, paws, and claws.

Since 1981, State and Federal wildlife agents have conducted many successful undercover operations to stop the illegal hunting and sale of bear gallbladders. . In 1988, Federal wildlife officials engaged in "Operation Smokey" in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. These efforts uncovered 368 illegal black bear kills. In 1994, an investigation uncovered a group arranging illegal bear hunts for South Koreans in California. It was determined that at least 30 to 3 5 bears were killed as a result of these trips. Last year, in Michigan, there was an incident reported in which a 350-pound male bear was found dead, having had its meat, paws, and gallbladder removed. The officer leading the investigation stated that "whoever shot the bear wanted the highly salable parts of the animal which can bring very big prices in illegal trade. " As recently as this year, undercover investigations conducted by state and federal officials in California and Utah uncovered cases in which poachers were circumventing state laws in an effort to obtain bear gallbladders for sale to Asia.

Mr. Chairman, the main reason behind these astronomical numbers is greed. In fact, in South Korea, bear gall bladders are worth more than their weight in gold, fetching a price of about $10,000 a piece! It is estimated that in my state of Kentucky, there are only 50-100 bears remaining in the wild. This is in stark contrast to the time when black bears roamed free across the Appalachian mountains, through the rolling hills of the bluegrass, all the way to the Mississippi River. Obviously, times have changed and we cannot restore the numbers of bears that we once had, but we can ensure that the remaining bears are not sold for profit to the highest bidder. This is a growing problem -- a national problem -- and I, for one, will not stand by and allow our own bear populations to be decimated by poachers.

Currently, U.S. law enforcement officials have little power to address the poaching of bears and the sale of their parts in an effective manner. The Department of the Interior has neither the manpower nor the budget to test all bear parts sold legally in the U.S. Without extensive testing, law enforcement officials cannot determine if gall bladders or other parts were taken from threatened of endangered species. This problem perpetuates the poaching of endangered or threatened bears.

Mr. Chairman, due to the patchwork of state laws, poachers are effectively able to "launder" the gall through the eight states that permit the sale of bear parts. The outright ban on the trade, sale, or barter of bear viscera, including items that claim to contain bear parts, will close the existing loopholes and will allow state and federal wildlife officials to focus their limited resources on much needed conservation efforts.

The Bear Protection Act will establish national guidelines for trade in bear parts, but it will not weaken any existing state laws that have been instituted to deal with this issue. The Lacey Act, enacted in 1900, was the first federal wildlife law intended to put an end to the interstate traffic of animals illegally killed in their state of origin. Unfortunately, this legislation has been ineffective in reducing the laundering of bear parts through those states that permit their sale. As long as a few states permit this action to go on, poaching for profit will continue.

To effectively manage their own bear populations, states need a minimum level of protection. This is also true if we are to curtail the international trade in bear parts. Since a number of countries, including Taiwan and South Korea, have not signed the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES), it is difficult to enforce this agreement. In recognition of this reality, the most recent CITES conference, to which the United States was a party, urged all parties to the convention to take immediate action to eliminate the illegal trade in bear parts. The United States delegation, headed by Donald Barry, Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks at the Department of Interior, coauthored the Conservation of and Trade in Bears Resolution, which propounded the adoption of national legislation to deter the illegal trade. This resolution was passed unanimously by the CITES convention in June, 1997. To this end, we can greatly assist in protecting American bear populations by passing this legislation in the Senate. Mr. Chairman, I request that a copy of this resolution be included with my statement in the record.

This bill also instructs the Secretary of the Interior and the United States Trade Representative to establish a dialogue with the appropriate countries to coordinate efforts aimed at curtailing the international bear trade. Obviously, efforts to reduce the demand ill Asia are of the utmost importance. Moreover, efforts to encourage foreign governments to increase usage of synthetic or other natural products as an alternative to bear gall will greatly improve the situation.

Efforts to bolster protection in Canada should also be a priority. Canada has mandated fewer across-the-board protections of their bear populations and do not prohibit the sale of bear viscera in all Provinces. Canada and the U. S. share thousands of miles of open border that can't possible be adequately monitored to stop poaching or smugglers. These actions must be stopped if we are to effectively protect our bears.

It is important to note that my bill would in no way affect legal hunting of bears. Hunters would still be allowed to keep trophies and furs of bears killed during legal hunts. I believe that S. 263 is crafted narrowly enough to deal with the poaching of the American bears for profit, while still ensuring the rights of the American sportsmen.

Mr. Chairman, it is important that we act now to protect the American bear population, just as it is important that Congress pass legislation to protect rhinos and tigers, whose populations are in grave danger overseas. I believe that we have the opportunity to pass proactive legislation to ensure that America's bears do not suffer the same fate as so many Asian bears or rhinos and tigers in Asia and Africa. If we act now, we can stop the poaching of bears, which left unchecked, will surely lead to their extinction.

I would like to thank the Chairman, Senator Chafee, for holding this hearing. I urge my colleagues to join me, and 53 other Senators, in support of this much needed legislation.