Issue of the Week: Poaching in the United States

The illegal take of wildlife, or poaching, has made major news this past year. Most prominent in the media is poaching of elephants and rhinoceros in Africa, or tigers and sharks in Asia. But what’s not being reported is poaching in the United States, likely because it doesn’t have the same news appeal as the charismatic creatures living in wild jungles. Poaching in the United States isn’t limited to one region either; it affects various plant and animal species throughout the country.

The American black bear, a widely dispersed predator, has been poached for its gallbladder, bile, hide, and paws. In Eastern medicine, bear gallbladders and bile are used to treat diseases of the liver, heart, and even diabetes. Although thirty-four U.S. states have banned the trade of black bear bile and gallbladders, the international black market still supplies the demand.

Poaching black bears can be a very lucrative business. Undercover investigations have revealed that a dried bear gallbladder can be worth as much as US $30,000 and a single serving of bear paw soup can go for as much as US $1,400. Perhaps the range of black bear poaching is not reported because black bears are abundant in North America, and poaching levels are not currently a threat to their populations.

bear paw

Another American species sought by poachers is the bighorn sheep. The horns of a ram sheep can sell for over US $20,000 on the black market. The rarity of bighorn sheep permits is one of the driving factors that influence horn cost. The Peninsular bighorn sheep, one of the rarest subspecies, live on the desert slopes of the Peninsular Ranges in southern California. This population, which ranges from the San Jacinto Mountains south to the U.S.-Mexico border has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1998.

In addition to habitat loss from land development and disease transmission from captive livestock, poaching does poses a threat to some bighorn subspecies. Since these sheep typically inhabit remote areas that are challenging to monitor and patrol, surveillance of poaching and risk of getting caught is low.

Even one of the most commonly recognized large mammals in the United States, the white-tail deer, is a victim of poaching, especially in the fall months.  People drive country roads seeking the opportunity to poach a buck when its antlers are still in velvet, or when they peak in size from the surge of testosterone during the rut.


While hunters throughout the country and especially in the Northeast can attest that the deer population is in no danger of extinction, it is still important for people to respect laws that are put in place to help conserve animal populations and ensure public safety.

Anyone can assist in curtailing poaching. An easy way is to get familiar with wildlife regulations and local hunting seasons to ensure no illegal poaching is taking place. Operation Game Thief is an anonymous, anti-poaching program that encourages the public to report any suspicious activity or knowledge about a poaching violation. Reporting these violations to your state’s Operation Game Thief program is a safe and effective way to get involved with the fight to end poaching.

As a group, hunters help fund and assist responsible wildlife conservation and management. Hunters abide by laws and regulations set specifically to manage hunting and game populations. Poachers aren’t hunters, they are lawbreakers, and the public should not confuse the two.

One of the unfortunate aspects of poaching is that it may result in the reduction of legal hunting opportunities. SCI Foundation works to ensure that hunting regulations are formulated to be biologically sustainable, yet someone who illegally takes wildlife does not consider the biological implications. Even with sound policies in place, much remains to be done to make a larger positive impact and see the trend reversed. It is up to you to stay informed.

Twice a week, SCI Foundation informs readers about conservation initiatives happening worldwide and updates them on SCI Foundation’s news, projects and events. Tuesdays are dedicated to an Issue of the Week and Thursday’s Weekly Updates will provide an inside look into research and our other science-based conservation efforts. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more SCI Foundation news. 

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