When a highway maintenance crew in Canyon Country came across the dead body of a young bear early Thursday, it was an unfortunate but routine part of the job: another animal struck by a passing driver.
Then, a state game warden inspected the 2-year-old bear and found something more gruesome.
The 150-pound bear's paws had been removed and its gallbladder was harvested, according to Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Investigators suspect the bear, which was found near Highway 14 at Sand Canyon Road, was struck by a vehicle sometime late Wednesday or early Thursday, then mutilated by the driver or someone related to him.
"There were no signs of a gunshot, broken legs or hip — this was a crime of opportunity," Hughan said. "We are very confident it was hit by a car. This desecration of the body was done afterward."
Poachers particularly covet the bear's gallbladder, which is believed to have medicinal or aphrodisiac powers and can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market. Bear paws, meanwhile, can be cooked and served as a high-priced delicacy.
During the spring, bears that are 1-1/2 to 2 years old are pushed out of their mother's care to make way for more cubs in a process known as displacement, Hughan said.
"They are off on their own, and sometimes they don't know how to get out of the way of the car," he added.
Anyone with information about the suspected poaching is asked to contact the Department of Fish and Game tip line at (888) 334-2258.