Help Asheville Bears celebrates $10,000 payout to anonymous tipster
BELINGTON, West Virginia––Bear poaching busts on January 5, 2021 in Grady County, Georgia and the following day in Belington, West Virginia, suggest that campaigns offering rewards for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of suspects are paying off.
Information about the January 5, 2021 arrest is so far sparse. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources announced only that, “A Florida man was arrested for poaching a black bear in Georgia. Region 5 Captain Rick Sellars got a tip about a black bear being shot in Grady County on Christmas Eve.
“Since that county has no open season for killing bears, Corporal Steve Thomas investigated, learned the suspect’s identity, and found out where the bear was shot.
“Officers interviewed the poacher, who was from Florida, took the bear hide and meat, and issued charges against the suspect,” whom the Georgia Department of Natural Resources did not name.
Dope, speed, & bear cub poaching too
Brian Michael Reel, 31, of Belington, West Virginia, was arrested on January 6, 2021, according to WBOY 12 News Staff, after West Virginia Natural Resources police “said they found ‘a large amount of marijuana’ in his Belington home while executing a search warrant in relation to the slaying of three bear cubs,” whose remains were found on November 12, 2020.
“When officers entered Reel’s residence they found that he had “removed the hides to give to a third party,” WBOY 12 continued.
The marijuana was reportedly packaged in nine bags.
“Officers said they also found other drug paraphernalia” and a “small amount of substance identified as methamphetamine’ in the residence,” WBOY 12 added.
Charged with possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance and three misdemeanor charges of illegally taking a bear, Reel was reportedly held in Tygart Valley Regional Jail.
More money to be made in turning in poachers than in poaching
Reel was arrested less than 24 hours after Help Asheville Bears, headquartered in Asheville, North Carolina, offered a $10,000 reward for the identity of the person who poached the three bear cubs.
“More charges related to this case are pending,” Help Asheville Bears posted to Facebook, thanking West Virginia Natural Resources police officers Josh Prickett and Brad McDougle for “quick and immediate response to the tip and the evidence provided” by the anonymous tip sent to Help Asheville Bears.
“Thank you to Tony Wisniewski, head of Poacher Strike Force, and private poaching investigator Tim Williams for quick and immediate actions,” Help Asheville Bears added. “Poacher Strike Force quickly handled the private investigation of the tip and evidence.
“Private investigator Williams of Poacher Strike Force will quickly be hand-delivering a $10,000 reward check on behalf of Help Asheville Bears to the heroic informant who stopped this monster from committing more evil acts,” Help Asheville Bears announcement confirmed.
Help Asheville Bears
Belington, West Virginia, about a seven-hour drive north of Asheville, and Grady County, Georgia, about six hours south, along the Florida border, are both relatively far from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where frequent crimes against bears inspired Jody Williams of Asheville to form Help Asheville Bears in August 2019.
But that appears to show the influence of Help Asheville Bears in motivating both private citizens and law enforcement to crack down on a form of crime previously committed with relative impunity.
Not that rewards always pay off. A $5,000 reward offered since September 22, 2020 for the arrest of whoever left a dead bear draped over a sign in Walland, Tennessee, with a handwritten racist message, remains unclaimed.
The freshly killed bear was discovered four days before the opening of Tennessee bear hunting season by retired Blue Ridge Parkway ranger Warren Bielenberg. Bielenberg, a 34-year National Park Service employee and now a volunteer, were reportedly on their way to do a migratory bird count.
Jody Williams started Help Asheville Bears upon discovering that at least 15 three-legged North American black bears are struggling for survival in the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains, many of them apparent victims of illegal trapping and snaring within Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Twelve three-legged bears were identified by photographs near Asheville, plus one each near Gatlinburg and Banner Elk, North Carolina, and one near Pickens, South Carolina.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission seemed unconcerned that at least 14 three-legged bears roamed the northwestern part of the state. Wildlife agencies in the Great Smokies region generally remain dismissive of suggestions that the three-legged bears are victims of the one-paw-at-a-time poaching approach used by bear poachers in parts of Southeast Asia.
Wildlife agencies get a clue
“Bears get hit by cars all the time, and unfortunately bears with three legs are not uncommon,” North Carolina Wildlife Resource spokesperson Justin McVey told WLOS-TV when Help Asheville Bears debuted.
However, ANIMALS 24-7 determined through searching online historical newspaper archives that as of May 2020, more three-legged bears were within the three-state territory monitored by Help Asheville Bears than have been reported in any previous 20-year span in the entire U.S., and in the whole preceding 40 years.
Williams founded Help Asheville Bears “thinking we were going to catch some neighborhood trapper,” he told Shannon Smith of WLOS-TV. “Then the reports started piling in,” Williams added.
Help Asheville Bears at that time, after only nine months in existence, had distributed $80,000 in rewards to tipsters, one of whom, Williams said, “provided us with nine names that are involved in a three-decade-old trapping and poaching operation.”