By Brad Brooks
(Reuters) – Two men have been indicted in Montana for allegedly hunting and killing bald eagles, the once nearly extinct national symbol of the United States, and selling feathers and other parts on the black market.
Federal prosecutors allege the two men killed over 3,600 birds, among them an unspecified number of protected bald and golden eagles, from January 2015 to March 2021, often on or near the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana.
A federal grand jury in Montana last week indicted Simon Paul and Travis John Branson on charges of unlawful trafficking of bald eagles, conspiracy and violating the Lacey Act concerning trafficking of wildlife.
The pair face up to 11 years in prison and fines of $275,000 each if convicted on all charges.
Court documents did not list legal representation for Paul and Branson. Calls to phone numbers listed for Branson were not answered. No phone numbers were found for Paul.
Prosecutors allege Paul and Branson would hunt the birds on the reservation and elsewhere.
“The defendants then illegally sold the eagles on the black market for significant sums of cash across the United States and elsewhere,” the indictment read, without specifying how much money.
Investigators followed the message traffic between Paul, Branson and the buyers.
In one message, Branson wrote to a buyer that he was “on a killing spree” and “out here committing felonies.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the bald eagle nearly went extinct in the mid 1900s because of habitat destruction and the contamination of fish, its primary food source, by the insecticide DDT, which made the eagles’ eggs thin and easily breakable.
Congress made killing bald eagles illegal in 1940. The birds were placed on the endangered species list in 1967. They were removed from all endangered and threatened species lists in 2007.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Longmont, Colorado; editing by Donna Bryson and Lincoln Feast)