Three men have been accused of causing the death of 3,600 birds in order to illegally sell them on the black market.
According to a federal grand jury indictment, two individuals engaged in a “killing spree” on Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation and other areas, resulting in the deaths of approximately 3,600 birds, including bald and golden eagles. The indictment also states that the suspects then sold parts of these eagles on a black market, which has been an ongoing issue for wildlife officials in the United States.
According to the charges, the men collaborated with others to pursue and slaughter birds. In one occurrence, they utilized a deceased deer to entice an eagle, which was then shot. The two accused individuals conspired with unnamed accomplices to profit from the sale of eagle feathers, tails, wings, and other body parts for large amounts of money in the United States and other locations.
Simon Paul, a 42-year-old resident of St. Ignatius, Montana, and Travis John Branson, a 48-year-old resident of Cusick, Washington, have been charged with 13 counts of illegally trafficking bald and golden eagles. They also face one count each of conspiracy and violating laws related to trafficking wildlife.
According to the indictment, text messages retrieved by investigators revealed that Branson and his associates informed buyers that he was actively acquiring eagle tail feathers for future sales, referring to Paul as a “shooter” for Branson.
According to the indictment, the homicides took place between January 2015 and 2021 in the vicinity of Ronan, Montana, on the Flathead Reservation, which is the residence of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. However, it did not specify the number of eagles among the 3,600 birds that were killed.
According to a recent government study, unauthorized shootings are a major contributor to the deaths of golden eagles.
“We are hopeful that any individuals found guilty will serve as a deterrent to others, as we are closely monitoring the situation,” stated Rich Janssen, head of the Natural Resources Department for the tribes. He added that tribe members utilize eagle feathers for traditional attire and ceremonial purposes.
The investigation of Paul and Branson involved tribal law enforcement, but Janssen was unaware of the reason for the delay in their charges.
The bald eagle holds great significance as the national emblem of the United States, and is revered by Native American communities along with the golden eagle. According to U.S. law, it is illegal to harm or disrupt eagles without a permit, including taking their nests or eggs. Even collecting feathers from the wild can be considered a criminal act.
Native American tribes that are officially recognized by the government have the option to request permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to obtain a bald or golden eagle for religious reasons. Additionally, members of these recognized tribes can also apply for eagle feathers and other body parts from the National Eagle Repository. However, there is currently a significant delay in fulfilling these requests, as reported by Janssen and two experts in eagle research.
According to the scientists, a backlog may be fueling the illegal trade of eagle parts. The feathers of juvenile golden eagles are particularly sought after, with wait times of up to five years to obtain them from the repository, as stated by Bryan Bedrosian, a researcher at the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming.
He stated that this has unfortunately resulted in the creation of a market for illegal eagle parts.
Rob Domenech, the executive director of Raptor View Research Institute in Missoula, Montana, believes that addressing delays could potentially decrease the illegal trade of eagle parts.
According to him, the region where the birds were purportedly being targeted contains a significant number of eagles and other large birds of prey, particularly breeding hawks and eagles, as well as migratory birds that travel from the north to spend winter in the Flathead area.
According to Domenech, there are certain times of the year when there is a large number of raptors, making it an ideal time for this type of behavior.
Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife department did not provide a prompt response to inquiries concerning the accumulation of permit applications from tribal groups. A representative for Montana’s U.S. Attorney, Jesse Laslovich, who is handling the legal proceedings, refrained from giving further statements aside from what was already stated in the indictment.
Bald eagles faced a decline in numbers throughout the majority of the United States in the previous century, mainly due to the use of DDT pesticides. However, after receiving government protection, their population has thrived and they were removed from the endangered species list in 2007. In recent years, their numbers have been steadily increasing. On the other hand, golden eagles are facing greater uncertainty as researchers have found that shootings, energy development, lead poisoning, and other issues have pushed this species to the verge of decline.
In the United States, there are approximately 346,000 bald eagles and only 40,000 golden eagles. Golden eagles require larger habitats to thrive and are more likely to encounter conflicts with humans.
Numerous unlawful killings of eagles in the past decade prompted federal probes, leading to 17 individuals from various states and two pawn shops in South Dakota being convicted of crimes. In this instance, the examined eagle remains were traded online, with transactions taking place in Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming.
In the beginning of this year, a man from Montana received a three-year prison sentence for allegedly selling golden eagle tails at a price of several hundred dollars per tail, according to South Dakota prosecutors.
Last week, the unsealed grand jury indictment claims that Branson traveled from Washington to the Flathead Reservation with the intention of shooting eagles.
According to the indictment, when Branson came to the Flathead Indian Reservation, Paul would meet him and assist in the illegal killing, transportation, and sale of bald and golden eagles on the black market.
Paul and Branson were not detained and were given notices to appear in court for their arraignments on January 8 at the U.S. District Court in Missoula.
The legal papers did not specify the lawyers representing the individuals, and attempts to contact them through their listed phone numbers were unsuccessful.