9 Accused of Selling Bear Parts

Indictments Result From Crackdown on Poaching in Va.

By Maria Glod

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, March 17, 1999; Page B02

A federal grand jury has indicted nine people -- all but one from Virginia -- on charges of illegally selling bear parts as part of a highly profitable, loosely organized poaching ring operating in the Blue Ridge Mountains, authorities announced yesterday.

The indictments, handed up last week in Charlottesville, are the culmination of a three-year state and federal investigation that so far has resulted in criminal charges against 52 people.

Authorities said Virginia's thriving black bear population has become a target for poachers, who kill the animals not only for their meat and fur but also for their gallbladders and other parts. The gallbladders are highly prized in Asian markets for their supposed medicinal value. The paws are used to make a soup that is considered a delicacy in some Asian cultures, and the claws and teeth are used to make jewelry.

During the investigation, agents seized about 300 gallbladders, which authorities estimated could fetch as much as $75,000 in the United States and $3 million on the international market, according to the Virginia Department of Inland Game and Fisheries. The gallbladders and the green bile in them are used in some Asian cultures to treat ailments that include heart disease and hangovers.

Although bear hunting is permitted in Virginia, it is illegal to sell the body parts, including gallbladders, heads, paws, claws and teeth.

Wildlife officials said it is unclear how widespread bear poaching is in Virginia, but they said some of those indicted this week are considered to be significant traders in bear parts.

Bonnie Sue Baldwin, of Sperryville, Va., was indicted on nine federal felony charges and one misdemeanor charge. Her husband, Danny Ray Baldwin, is facing eight felony charges and one misdemeanor charge.

Investigators who searched the couple's home found 51 bear gallbladders and two whole bears stored in freezers, according to the National Park Service. According to a federal search warrant filed in the case, the couple told an undercover investigator that they had been in business for 13 years, selling about 300 gallbladders a year to customers in Maryland, New York and the District.

"Some of the dealers involved have been such major dealers in the region that we feel we have made a big dent into the sale of bear parts," said Clayton F. Jordan, a spokesman for Shenandoah National Park. "We continue to pursue the leads. There's been some links out of the area, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to pursue."

Also indicted on charges of selling bear parts were Bennie Randolph Hurt, of Banco, Va.; Travis Meadows, of Madison, Va.; James T. Presgraves Jr. and Kenneth Louderback, Jr., both of Stanley, Va.; James C. Graves Jr. and Earl R. Banks, both of Syria, Va.; and Raymond Dove, of Petersburg, W.Va.

Bear poaching has become increasingly common in North America as bear populations in other parts of the world fall prey to excessive hunting or dwindling habitats, wildlife officials said.

In Virginia, hunters legally kill 600 to 900 bears each hunting season. Officials say it is unclear how many more of the estimated 4,000 bears living in the state are killed by poachers.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company