Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) Two men were indicted by a federal grand jury in Montana on Friday on allegations they illegally killed 3,600 birds, including bald and golden eagles on the Flathead Indian Reservation, then illegally sold the eagles on the black market.

Simon Paul and Travis John Branson were each indicted on one count of conspiracy, multiple counts of unlawful trafficking of bald and golden eagles, and one count of violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits trafficking of unlawfully taken wildlife.

Investigators found messages from Branson in which he talked about killing eagles, saying he was “on a killing spree” to capture eagle feathers and at one point told someone he was “out [here] committing felonies,” according to the indictment.

According to the indictment, the two men “and others” hunted and killed thousands of birds on Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes lands and other locations, and sold parts of several eagles on the black market “for significant sums of cash across the United States and elsewhere.”

The indictment says the alleged conspiracy between Paul and Branson to kill and traffic the birds happened between January 2015 and March 2021, centered near Ronan.

It alleges the two killed several golden and bald eagles specifically between January 2019 and March 2021. The indictment accuses Paul of being the person who lived near Ronan who was tasked with shooting and shipping the eagles for Branson, whom the indictment said would travel to the Flathead reservation from Washington state.

“When Branson arrived on the Flathead Indian Reservation, Paul would meet and help kill, transport, and ship bald and golden eagles for future sales on the black market,” the indictment says.

The indictment outlines two instances in which Paul and Branson allegedly killed golden eagles, communicated about trafficking them, and then moved the eagles. Once, between Dec. 17-21, 2020, when Branson texted a photo to a buyer of a golden eagle tail set, received a PayPal payment, had Paul mail the feathers from St. Ignatius to Texas, then received a message from the buyer saying they, “Got that thang from Simon. And the mirror feathers.”

The second instance happened March 13, 2021, when Branson set up at a deer carcass “to lure in eagles.” They shot a golden eagle that day, cleaned it, and put parts of the bird into their vehicle to transport, according to the indictment.

Branson is accused of possessing and selling bald and golden eagle tails, wings, or other parts on seven different occasions between April 2020 and March 2021. And Paul is accused of doing the same on five occasions between December 2020 and March 2021, according to the indictment.

Initial violations of the eagle trafficking statute carry a year in prison upon conviction, but subsequent violations carry two-year prison penalties. The conspiracy and Lacey Act violation counts carry penalties of five years in prison for each and large fines.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Montana said they could not comment further on the indictment and case. Paul and Branson were issued summons to appear in court in Missoula on Jan. 8 for arraignments.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act was enacted in 1940 to protect the bald eagle as the country’s national symbol, and Congress extended it in 1962 to protect golden eagles. The act prohibits anyone from killing, disturbing, or capturing bald or golden eagles, their feathers, nests, or eggs without a permit and includes criminal penalties for people who violate it.

There are also several acts that prohibit any take of protected migratory bird species.

In June, a Hardin man was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay $70,000 in restitution for killing 14 juvenile eagles after he was indicted in May 2022, then found guilty of three violations of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in February.

Harvey Hugs, 59, was found selling golden eagle feathers to people in South Dakota. When investigators executed a search warrant at his home in Hardin in March 2021, they found several eagle tails and wings, and other items were seized that genetically matched what he had sold. Hugs had previously been convicted of trafficking eagles in 2012.

State law also prohibits people from killing or transporting any bird or its parts except for game birds and certain others like magpies. It also allows for eagle plumages to be used by a tribal member in a religious ceremony.