Five people have been convicted of illegal wildlife trafficking for smuggling black bear parts from Saskatchewan to Ontario, officials from both provinces announced Thursday as they wrapped up a two-and-a-half-year probe.

Four of those involved in trafficking the paws and gallbladders were from Saskatoon and Sandy Bay, Sask., while the fifth was from Toronto, said Staff Supt. Lindsey Couillard, manager of the intelligence and investigations service of Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources.

"Those involved in the trade, they don't stop at provincial boundaries. They were moving the wildlife from Saskatoon to Toronto," she said. "It's very rewarding to conclude the case, because we know this one will protect the wildlife, but it also puts an end to a segment of the illegal black market."

The sale of bear gallbladders, which are thought to have healing properties, is illegal. The bear paws were used to make soup and the fat was boiled down for use in skin creams, police said.

Couillard said the investigation began in early 2017 when officers with the Saskatchewan Special Investigations Unit learned about a restaurant in Sandy Bay that was buying black bear parts. She said her office got involved when they learned some of the products were making their way to Toronto.

"There is a black market," Couillard said. "We know there is. It's a priority for us to investigate commercialization of fish and wildlife."

The Saskatchewan side of the probe was more complex, said Insp. Dean Grisdale of the Saskatchewan Special Investigations Unit.

Several officers went undercover after slaughtered bears were found at a garbage dump, rousing suspicion that some body parts were being trafficked.

The officers posed as hunters selling gallbladders that mostly came from roadkill or nuisance bears that had to be killed for safety reasons, Grisdale said, noting they were asked on several occasions to provide even more gallbladders, but declined.

"We're very cognizant of the fact that we're not trying to supply the market and create a greater demand," he said.

He said the issue of gallbladder trafficking was most prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s.

"It was on the front page and in the news. That caused us to be a little more engaged back then," he said.

Ultimately, a Toronto woman was charged and convicted of unlawfully possessing black bear gallbladders and fined about $3,000.

The four from Saskatchewan, who were also convicted of unlawfully trafficking in bear parts, face fines that total $67,370.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 13, 2020.