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Killing of eagles on Flathead Indian Reservation highlights black market demand

Posted at 11:30 AM, Mar 21, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-21 13:37:13-04

SEATTLE — A Washington State man pleaded guilty in a Missoula courtroom on Wednesday to helping to kill thousands of birds — including federally protected eagles — in order to feed a black market for the selling of their feathers and body parts.

Travis John Branson is facing wildlife trafficking charges after court documents say he went on a years-long killing spree of bald and golden eagles.

Eagle feathers have been an important part of Native American ceremonies and regalia since time immemorial.

“Feathers are revered and sacred in Native American cultures. They are present to celebrate birth, their present to celebrate the passing to men and womanhood. They're present, to celebrate marriage are present as a healing implements, and then also to recognize the passing of one's life into another world,” explained Robert Mesta who works with the Liberty Wildlife Non-Eagle Feather Repository.

But because of the demand for feathers, one man accused of trying to cash in on demand for them by killing thousands of protected birds over the span of years is expected to take a plea agreement.

Branson is accused of selling parts of bald and golden eagles on the black market after killing them on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Federal prosecutors say he and a second suspect killed 3,600 birds during a yearslong killing spree, from 2015 to 2021.

Court documents show text messages from Branson and others, describing the illegal taking of the birds by saying quote "out here committing felonies" and telling buyers he was on a "killing spree" to get eagle tail feathers for future sales.

The second suspect is still at large.

“That would be a significant take on the population that could have population-level implications,” said Robert Domenech with the Missoula-based Raptor View Research Institute. He says each eagle feather could fetch around $100 on the black market.

Federal law prohibits anyone without a permit from killing, wounding or disturbing eagles — even grabbing feathers from the wild is illegal.

The federal government has an Eagle Feather Repository that distributes feathers collected out in the wild to tribes at no cost for religious ceremonies and cultural practices. But the backlog to get them legally creates a black market demand.

“The black market has grown significantly. It's hard to evaluate its impact or how large it is because it's a very secretive problem,” Mesta said.

Branson faces a maximum of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Domenech hopes this acts as a deterrent for this black market trade.

“I hope that these guys I hope that they get brought to justice and that they're there, that the penalties meet the crime.”