A federal grand jury issued an indictment on Dec. 7 in the U.S. District Court of Montana charging two men with multiple felonies related to illegally killing, selling, and shipping parts from some 3,600 birds, including federally protected bald and golden eagles.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Ryan Weldon and Randy Tanner brought 15 charges against the two defendants, Simon Paul and Travis John Branson. Paul and Branson were each charged with one count of conspiracy and one count of violating the Lacey Act. Paul was charged with five counts of unlawful trafficking of bald and golden eagles, and Branson was charged with eight counts of the same offense.
An investigation into text messages and PayPal transactions from 2015 to 2021 revealed evidence that Paul and Branson ran a black market eagle feather ring out of the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana, specifically in the towns of Ronan and St. Ignatius. Paul was the alleged “shooter” and “shipper” for Branson, who lived in Washington at the time. Branson traveled to Montana to kill and ship birds elsewhere with Paul.
“During the investigation law enforcement uncovered messages from Branson and others describing the illegal taking of eagles by stating, ‘[O]ut [here] committing felonies,’ and telling buyers he was ‘on a killing spree’ to obtain eagle tail feathers for future sales,” the redacted indictment reads.
The federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 prohibits any take of bald and golden eagles without a special permit from the Department of Interior.
According to the indictment, penalties for a first offense of trafficking bald and golden eagles can reach a $5,000 fine and a year in prison. Penalties are elevated for second and subsequent convictions to $10,000 in fines and two years in prison, plus a year of supervised release. Additionally, the penalty for conspiracy is up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine. And finally, the penalty for violating the Lacey Act could add on up to five years behind bars, three years of supervised release, and a $20,000 fine.
The indictment also mentioned that other parties were involved, although they remained unnamed.
While the indictment reported that Paul lived near Ronan on the Flathead Indian Reservation from January 2019 through March 2021, it is unclear if either Paul or Branson were enrolled members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.