Bear Country
Bear Country USA, the popular tourist attraction on U.S. Highway 16. (Don Polovich, Journal staff)

RAPID CITY -In the wake of a scandal in 2006, in which animal parts were allegedly being harvested from animals at the Black Hills tourist attraction, an overhaul of ownership and management was undertaken.

According to Mike Casey, who now oversees the popular animal attraction on U.S. 16 south of Rapid City, those who perpetrated the harvesting were removed from oversight or ownership of Bear Country entirely. Litigation was undertaken in 2007 to remove those involved in the improper acts, Mike Casey said.

The criminal charges arose in 2006. At that time, two members of the Casey family, which owns and operates Bear Country USA, pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to illegally selling bear gall bladders to buyers in Spearfish and Alaska.

And a U.S. Fish & Wildlife official said the black bears those parts came from didn't die of natural causes.

"They were being harvested. They were slaughtering them," said Bob Prieksat, resident agent in charge for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Pierre. "They were definitely breeding bears to produce more bears, and that's something they controlled.

"It's kind of like running a puppy factory, but in this case, they're running a bear factory."

Kevin Casey, one of the defendants and also the corporate representative for Bear Country USA, declined to comment on the allegation Tuesday. Co-defendant Brendan Casey said, "I will respond at the appropriate time."

Brothers Kevin and Brendan Casey each pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of illegally selling a total of 84.5 ounces of bear gall bladder in 2001. Bear gall bladders are used in Chinese medicine to treat a variety of aliments such as delirium and hemorrhoids.

The federal charging document states that the two "should have known that said wildlife was sold and purchased in violation of and in a manner unlawful under the laws and regulations of South Dakota and Alaska." For the charges to be felonies, prosecutors would have to prove the defendants knew their actions were illegal.

The Bear Country USA corporation also pleaded guilty Tuesday to one misdemeanor count of illegally buying and transporting two grizzly bears from Minnesota.

All of the charges against Bear Country USA and the Casey brothers are violations of the Lacey Act, a federal law that governs the preservation of scarce species.

According to a statement of factual basis filed in federal court, between September 1999 and October 2001, Kevin Casey and Brendan Casey had an ongoing business relationship with Steve Hauff, owner of Prairie Harvest, a Spearfish-based business that specializes in wild game and specialty gourmet products.

The Caseys admitted that during that time, they sold bear gall bladders to Hauff for $85 per ounce. Hauff then resold the gall bladders to Tommy Cha in Alaska. The Caseys also sold some gall bladders directly to Cha, according to court documents.

The statement of factual basis also indicates that between Sept. 14, 1999, and Oct. 11, 2001, Brendan Casey negotiated the sale of about $26,699 worth of bear parts bought from Bear Country USA, including 44 bear paws, 254.5 ounces of bear gall bladder and 12 pounds of bear meat, all of which were shipped to Alaska.

Under a plea agreement with the U.S. government, Kevin Casey and Brendan Casey agreed to forfeit 65 raw frozen gall bear bladders that were previously seized in the case. Both men agreed to pay, between them, $24,918 in restitution to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Lacey Act Reward Account for the value of bear gall bladders sold in Alaska.

Prosecutors agreed not to file additional charges based on knowledge and evidence they currently have.

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Prieksat said the local investigation originated in Colorado, where wildlife officers were investigating a specialty meat business that had reportedly either bought or sold bear parts originating from Bear Country USA. South Dakota officials began investigating in 2001, but Prieksat said he suspects the wildlife park had been selling parts for some time before then.

According to Bear Country USA's Web site, the operation has more than 250 bears. It bills itself as having the largest privately owned collection of black bears in the world. Each year, thousands of people drive through Bear Country USA to see bears and other wild animals up close. Baby Land, which is home to the new bear cubs born each year, is a major attraction in the park.

Prieksat said investigators found bears at several locations, including a 5,555-acre ranch the Casey family owns near Hot Springs. He said he did not know if the bears he said were being harvested were male or female.

Kevin Casey and Brendan Casey each face a maximum penalty of two years in prison, a $200,000 fine and two years probation when sentenced in September.

Hauff pleaded guilty in federal court in 2004 to a misdemeanor charge of violating the Lacey Act. He was sentenced to serve one year probation and pay a $3,000 fine and $8,320 in restitution.

Cha and others in Alaska were charged with similar crimes, Prieksat said. Federal court documents show that Cha was eventually sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.

The couple who illegally sold two grizzly bears to Bear Country USA also faced legal action.

Kenneth and Nancy Lee Kraft, owners of Bearcat Hollow and Kraft Game Farm in Racine, Minn., were part of a 55-count indictment charging them with illegally buying and selling endangered animals, making false statements to authorities and witness tampering. Federal court documents indicate Kenneth Kraft was eventually sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined nearly $5,000.

According to a St. Paul Pioneer Press story posted on the Big Cat Rescue Web site, Kraft was accused of illegally trafficking at least 17 tigers, seven leopards and five grizzly bears between 1999 and 2003.

Bear Country USA admitted to buying two grizzly bears, a male and a female, for $4,000 in March 2003. According to a statement of factual basis filed in federal court, grizzly bears are listed as federal endangered species in the lower 48 states, and the law prohibits interstate sale and purchase by a for-profit business.

Federal officials say it is possible to legally possess a grizzly bear with proper permits, if the animals are from a legal source. For that to be possible, a bear would probably have to be given to a for-profit business. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Vargo said the fact that the bears were sold and transported from state to state violated the Lacey Act.

A plea agreement with Bear Country USA states that prosecutors will recommend that Bear Country USA be allowed to keep the grizzly bears it bought illegally. However, any offspring produced by either bear for five generations can only be donated or transferred "without any reciprocal consideration (no sales, barters or trades)" to zoos or other nonprofit wildlife organizations.

Prosecutors will recommend that Bear Country USA pay $4,000 in restitution to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Lacey Act Reward Account.

U.S. District Judge Richard Battey could also impose a fine of as much as $500,000 when Bear Country USA is sentenced in September.

Contact Heidi Bell Gease at 394-8419 or heidi.bell@rapidcityjournal.com

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