Washington man pleads guilty to ‘eagle-killing spree’, faces jail time, fines

A Washington state man accused of helping kill thousands of birds pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to shooting an eagle on an American Indian reservation in Montana and selling its feathers and body parts on the black market.

Under a plea agreement reached with government lawyers last month, Travis John Branson pleaded guilty to conspiracy, wildlife trafficking and two counts of trafficking in federally protected bald and golden eagles.

prosecutor More than an eagle is killed Despite a law enforcement crackdown in the 2010s that resulted in dozens of criminal indictments across the American West and Midwest, the illegal eagle feather trade continues to thrive on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Native Americans used eagle feathers and other parts extensively during rituals and rituals.

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Court documents quote Branson in a January 2021 text message saying he was on a “killing spree” to obtain the eagle tail. According to the December indictment, Branson and a second defendant, Simon Paul, killed approximately 3,600 birds, including eagles on the Flathead Reservation and elsewhere.

Federal authorities have not disclosed how most of the birds were killed or where the killings occurred, and the issue was not discussed during Wednesday’s hearing.

In March 2021, Branson, of Cusick, Wash., sold two sets of golden eagle tail feathers, highly prized among many Native American tribes, to an unidentified buyer for $650, according to prosecutors.

Less than two weeks later, law enforcement stopped him on the reservation and found in his car the feet and feathers of a golden eagle he shot near Polson, Montana, according to court documents. The golden eagle is located on the reservation, which includes photos of the bird chopping off its feet with its giant talons. Prosecutors wrote that the bird’s carcass had been “cleaned” by Paul, the second defendant, and was found in a nearby field.

Prosecutors said multiple cellphones seized by authorities during the interceptions showed photos and text messages describing “the shooting, killing and eventual sale of bald eagles and golden eagles across the United States.”

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Branson admitted in response to questions from Magistrate Judge Catherine DeSoto that he “conspired to capture and sell migratory birds,” which is illegal under federal law. He also said he and his co-defendant grew up together and are from the Polson area.

DeSoto is scheduled to be sentenced on July 31 before U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen.

Above, an image retrieved by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana showing a set of golden eagle feet recovered from the vehicle of Travis John Branson, who was arrested Charged with killing thousands of birds on an American Indian reservation on March 20, 2024. (U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana via AP)

Branson was not detained during sentencing and he made no public comments after the hearing. His attorney, Assistant Federal Defender Andrew Nelson, declined to comment.

The plea agreement also requires Branson to pay damages. The amount has not yet been determined, but tribal officials hope some of the money will be donated to the Flathead Reservation, home to the Salish and Kootenai tribes.

“I hope we’ll see some of that money because our resources have been destroyed,” said Rich Janssen, chief of the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. “Frankly, it was our warden who did a lot of the legwork to get the case to the federal agency that ultimately resulted in prosecution.”

Paul, of St. Ignatius, Montana, remains at large. A federal judge issued a warrant for Paul’s arrest in December, and he failed to show up for his first court hearing.

The indictment describes Branson and Paul trafficking in golden eagles and bald eagles or their body parts on at least 11 occasions between December 2020 and the end of the ban. branson law enforcement March 13, 2021.

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Court documents show the illegal activity lasted much longer. They outlined a conspiracy that began in 2015 and involved other individuals who killed eagles on the Flathead Reservation, but whose identities have not yet been made public.

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In 2016 text messages cited by prosecutors, Branson appeared to acknowledge that it was illegal to transport the eagles internationally, adding, “I can buy them for 99 cents … the price of a bullet.”

In another text message, according to court documents, Branson, who was negotiating the sale of eagle feathers, allegedly wrote: “I won’t get them for free though… but don’t hear (sic) committing a felony. “

He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the most serious conspiracy charge. Under the plea agreement, attorneys for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Montana said they would seek to dismiss additional trafficking charges and recommend reduced sentencing guidelines to make Branson’s punishment less severe.

The criminal case comes nearly a decade after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a multi-state trafficking investigation, known as Operation Dakota Flyer, that resulted in charges against 35 defendants and the recovery of More than 150 eagles, 100 hawks and owls and 20 other species Confiscated protected birds or purchased secretly by authorities, according to federal officials.

Federally recognized tribes can apply for a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire a bald or golden eagle for religious purposes, and registered tribal members can obtain bald eagles from the National Eagle Repository in Colorado and non-governmental repositories in Colorado. Library application for feathers and other bird parts. Oklahoma and Phoenix. The national repository has a years-long backlog of requests, and researchers say high demand is fueling a black market for Eagle parts.

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By Ali Raza

I am a dedicated and skilled News Content Writer with a passion for delivering accurate and engaging stories to a diverse audience. With a solid background in journalism and a keen eye for detail, I bring a commitment to excellence and a deep understanding of the evolving media landscape.

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