Man pleads guilty to ‘killing’ bald eagles in Montana

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One of two men accused of killing 3,600 birds in Montana, including bald and golden eagles, in an illegal “slaughter” pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme to sell the dead birds on the black market, federal prosecutors said. on Wednesday.

In a plea agreement, Travis John Branson, 48, of Washington state, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, two counts of illegal trafficking of bald and golden eagles, and one count of violating the Lacey Act, a federal law prohibiting the illegal sale of acquired wildlife, the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Montana saying.

Branson faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the conspiracy and Lacey Act charges, prosecutors said.

In December, a grand jury indicted Mr. Branson and his co-defendant Simon Paul, 42, of Montana, on 15 charges, most of them illegal eagle trafficking. Prosecutors agreed to drop 11 of those charges against Branson, according to the plea agreement.

Paul, who did not appear at his arraignment, prosecutors said, is still at large. His sentencing is set for July 31 in U.S. District Court in Montana, prosecutors said.

From January 2015 to March 2021, the two men routinely met on the grasslands of the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana to hunt eagles that they would later sell, prosecutors said. Branson would travel from Washington state to meet Paul on the reservation, where he lived, prosecutors said.

The men sold the eagles’ wings and tails and, on one occasion, an entire eagle, according to the indictment. Prosecutors did not say how much money the men made from the sales, noting only that the bird parts were sold for “significant sums of cash.”

At one point they devised a hunting strategy in which they placed a deer carcass to attract birds, according to the indictment, which also cited text messages between Branson and the buyers.

In one message, Branson told a shopper that he was “on a killing spree” to stock up on eagle tail feathers. In another, he wrote that he was “committing serious crimes,” according to the indictment.

He also appeared to acknowledge in a separate message that international shipping of birds was illegal, prosecutors said.

Branson’s public defender, Andrew J. Nelson, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday night. Messages left at a phone number and sent to an email address listed for Mr. Branson were responded to immediately.

A lawyer listed in court records for Mr. Paul declined to comment.

The killing of bald eagles was considered particularly egregious in a country where the bird is the national symbol and was once considered an endangered species.

It was unclear how many of the 3,600 birds prosecutors said the men killed were eagles. Clair J. Howard, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment.

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