In a series of early morning raids across the Central Valley and Central Coast on Wednesday, state wildlife agents arrested 11 men accused of illegally killing hundreds of black bears, sometimes "shooting anything they could," including deer, bobcats and mountain lions, according to officials.
Flanked by evidence -- a dozen skulls, several skins and a mounted bear cub -- California Department of Fish and Game officials, speaking at a Wednesday afternoon news conference in Bakersfield, described the operation as the largest bear-poaching bust in California in 20 years.
Evidence against the suspects also included framed photos taken from their homes and businesses of bears being butchered in the field.
The suspects, said Fish and Game officials, shot the bears over the last several years in the southern Sierra Nevada and in the mountains of San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties. The men arrested include hunting guides, taxidermists and people who use dogs to corner bears. They are accused of hunting out of season and flouting state hunting laws.
Officials said they are still investigating whether any of the suspects were selling bear parts on the black market. In much of Asia, bear parts -- particularly the feet and gall bladders -- are used in homemade medicines and potions as cures and aphrodisiacs.
Frederick Cole, Fish and Game's assistant chief of special operations, said one of the suspects boasted to agents that he had shot 68 bears out of season.
Another suspect, Jesse Merrill, 31, a taxidermist from Arvin, was arrested Wednesday morning as he was leaving his home and business in his truck with a hunting rifle and a powerful handgun. Officials believe he was going to shoot bear or deer -- although hunting season for all big game in California ended weeks ago.
"You have to keep in mind that these [suspects] have been doing this for years," said Edward R. Jagels, Kern County district attorney. "There is a good deal of evidence of many, many, many bears taken illegally."
Officials said the suspects are believed to have shot and killed other wildlife illegally, in some cases using deer carcasses as bear bait, an illegal practice in California. In other cases, according to the agents, bear cubs were killed, possibly to attract their mothers who could then also be killed.
"You have to look at poaching as sly, sneaking and nefarious," said Cole. He said poachers often eavesdropped on agency game warden radio communications to figure out the best places to hunt and not be caught.
Charges filed against the suspects include hunting outside the established fall hunting season, cruelty to animals, and guiding hunters without a license. Nine of the 11 suspects are from the San Joaquin Valley. The other two -- Marco Contreras, 33, and Gilbert Galindo, 56 -- are from Los Angeles.
Contreras is charged with illegal use of dogs, a misdemeanor. Galindo is charged with felony conspiracy for hunting bears out of season. He could face 3 1/2 to six years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000 if convicted, officials said.
Wildlife officials believe the suspects sometimes acted as guides and took paying customers bear hunting throughout the year.
California law requires all bear hunters to buy a license for the three-month hunting season during the fall and early winter. A hunter is permitted to kill only one adult bear during the season.
The investigation leading to the arrests had been going on for the last 13 months and grew out of a tip to the Fish and Game Department from hunters over a telephone hotline that the agency maintains for citizens to report poaching activities.
As part of the investigation, two undercover Fish and Game agents paid to go on an illegal hunting trip with one of the suspects and killed two bears.
"It was a hard thing to do, but we have to do that to get evidence," Cole said.
More than 82 Fish and Game personnel participated in the Wednesday morning operation that took place in Kern, Tulare and Monterey counties.
The black bear population in California is believed by wildlife officials to have grown in recent years and is estimated at more than 25,000. Fish and Game officials said poaching does not threaten the overall population, but it probably has reduced the species' numbers in some areas hit hard by poachers.
Fish and Game agents said the arrests will put a significant dent in poaching in California.
They also said game wardens are having an increasingly difficult time patrolling the state, which has tens of millions of acres of remote land, a growing population and fewer than 300 wardens. Each warden must cover 600 to 1,100 square miles.