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Sunday, Sep 30, 2001County: Pennington
» Kevin Casey
» Brendan Casey
The periodic slaughter of black bears by Bear Country USA, a popular tourist attraction caught up in a federal case over the illegal sale of bear gall bladders, was handled legally under a state permit, state veterinarian Sam Holland said. The permitted slaughter included regular inspections by representatives of the South Dakota Animal Industry Board, which Holland heads. But the sale of gall bladders taken from those bears ran afoul of laws in other states and a federal law that protects wildlife species from human exploitation.
Kevin Casey and Brendan Casey, two members of the family that owns and operates Bear Country, pleaded guilty Tuesday to two federal misdemeanor charges of illegally selling bear gall bladders -- which are used in alternative medicine -- in 2001 to buyers in Spearfish and Alaska. Bear Country USA, as a corporation, pleaded guilty to separate misdemeanor counts of illegally buying and transporting two grizzly bears from Minnesota.
Bear Country, a drive-through wildlife park on U.S. Highway 16 south of Rapid City, had the proper state permits to slaughter and process bears and label the meat products for sale, Holland said Thursday. The slaughtering and processing, which ended several years ago, were handled by RC Western Meats in Rapid City under inspection by the state, Holland said. "At the time, RC Western Meats was doing the processing, mostly of individual bears," Holland said. "I don't think we ever had a load of bears, like we have a load of buffalo."
Bear Country USA issued a written statement in response to comments on the case by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law-enforcement agent Bob Prieksat of Pierre comparing the bear operation at Bear Country to a "puppy factory." The Caseys objected to that term, saying it incorrectly implied that Bear Country USA was "in the business of breeding bears in an inhumane fashion for the purpose of selling them on the open market," when in fact, the operation provided visitors a chance to see bears in "a humane and safe setting." The Caseys also corrected a statement attributed to Prieksat in a Rapid City Journal story Thursday saying that bears were kept at the family's 5,500-acre ranch near Wind Cave National Park, noting that there were no bears at that ranch. Bear Country has kept bears at its Cedar Creek Ranch east of Rapid City, which is the one Prieksat was referring to in his comments.
The Caseys declined to be interviewed and limited their comments in the statement released Wednesday "in order to preserve the integrity of our judicial system."
Contacted by phone in Washington, D.C., Holland said he wasn't well-versed on the federal law involved. But Holland said slaughter of the bears and the sale of parts was not a violation of laws or rules administered by the state Animal Industry Board, which regulates and permits the possession and handling of certain nondomestic animals -- including legally acquired black bears. "I'm not familiar with the law on that by other federal agencies. It's my understanding that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is contending that the sale of gall bladder was in conflict with certain federal statutes," Holland said.
Holland said the Caseys had been "good to deal with" over the years and had followed state rules consistently.
Federal court documents contend, however, that the Caseys were in violation of the law and should have known that. The investigation that led to the federal charges began in Colorado, where the sale of bear gall bladders is expressly forbidden by state law. Wildlife officers there received reports of the sale of bear parts from Bear Country USA.
Wildlife officers began investigating the operation in 2001, leading to the guilty plea by Kevin and Brendan Casey for selling 84.5 ounces of bear gall bladder.
In October 2001, a federal wildlife agent working with Prieksat seized 65 bear gall bladders from storage areas at Bear Country, leading investigators to conclude that the business was doing extensive trading in bear parts. Although the sale of bear gall bladders isn't illegal under the South Dakota Animal Industry Board regulations, the federal Lacey Act -- which is being used in this case -- makes it illegal to sell parts originating in South Dakota in states where such sales are illegal.
The Caseys admit that they sold gall bladders to Steve Hauff, owner of Prairie Harvest in Spearfish, who sold them to a buyer in Alaska. Alaska state law prohibits the purchase, sale or barter of most black-bear parts, including gall bladders.
Under a plea agreement, the Casey brothers agreed to forfeit the 65 frozen bear gall bladders and pay a fine of about $25,000. In a separate plea arrangement, Bear Country USA will keep the two grizzly bears, with certain stipulations restricting what the business can do with offspring from the animals. Bear Country could also pay an additional fine for that violation.
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