Two men, Simon Paul and Travis John Branson, are implicated in a federal grand jury indictment that has exposed a gruesome killing spree, resulting in the deaths of approximately 3,600 birds, including the revered bald and golden eagles.
The indictment alleges that the duo then engaged in the illegal sale of eagle parts on the notorious black market, a persistent issue for US wildlife officials.
According to the accusation, Paul and Branson worked along with others to hunt and kill the birds.
They used unsettling strategies including enticing eagles with a dead deer before shooting them.
Accused men planned to sell eagle parts—feathers, tails, wings, and other parts—for large amounts of money both within and outside of the United States in collusion with unidentified others.
Both Paul and Branson face 13 counts of unlawful trafficking of bald and golden eagles, along with charges of conspiracy and violating wildlife trafficking laws.
Text messages obtained by investigators reveal Branson’s disturbing proclamation of being “on a killing spree” to gather more eagle tail feathers for future sales, while Paul is described as a “shooter” working for Branson.
The killings, according to the indictment, began in January 2015 and persisted until 2021 in Ronan, Montana, on the Flathead Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Rich Janssen, director of the tribe’s Natural Resources Department, expressed hope that the case serves as a warning to others, emphasizing the cultural significance of eagle feathers for traditional dress and ceremonies within the tribes.
Eagle Killing Spree Raises Concerns
While tribal law enforcement participated in the investigation, Janssen expressed uncertainty about the delay in charging Paul and Branson.
The indictment did not specify the number of eagles among the 3,600 birds killed.
Golden eagles’ illegal shootings, as highlighted in a recent government study, remain a leading cause of their deaths.
The grand jury’s findings shed light on a disturbing trend where the backlog of requests for eagle parts from federally recognized tribes may be fueling the black market.
Tribes can apply for permits, but the lengthy delays could be contributing to the rise in illegal trade.
The area where the alleged shootings occurred is known for its high concentrations of eagles and other large raptors, creating an environment ripe for such illicit activities, according to Rob Domenech, executive director of Raptor View Research Institute.
Bald eagles, the national symbol of the United States, saw a population resurgence after coming off the endangered species list in 2007.
However, golden eagles face multiple threats, including shootings, energy development, lead poisoning, and other challenges.
The indictment indicates that Branson traveled from Washington state to the Flathead Reservation to execute the killings, with Paul assisting in transporting and shipping eagle parts for the illicit black market trade.
Both individuals are scheduled to appear for arraignments on January 8, 2024, in US District Court in Missoula.
As the investigation unfolds, the case raises concerns about the ongoing struggle to protect these iconic species and the need for stricter enforcement against those contributing to the illegal trade of eagle parts.
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