Conservation Wildlife Management

Man Pleads Guilty to ‘Killing Spree’ of Thousands of Eagles, Accomplice Still at Large

Both men are accused of poaching bald and golden eagles on the Flathead Indian Reservation and selling their feathers and talons for cash
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A pair of eagle talons and a feather.
Officers found these golden eagle talons and feathers in Travis John Branson's vehicle. Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Montana

On Wednesday Travis John Branson of Cusick, Washington, pled guilty in the U.S. District Court of Montana to conspiracy, unlawful trafficking of bald and golden eagles, and Lacey Act violations. Branson originally pled not guilty to those charges on Jan. 8 but then motioned to change his plea on Feb. 27. The other defendant in the case, Branson’s alleged partner-in-crime Simon Paul, remains wanted by authorities.

Further details and photographs from illegal transactions in 2021 surfaced during the most recent court proceedings. An unknown buyer allegedly reached out to Branson on March 1, 2021 seeking eagle feathers for sale. Branson sent two photos of eagle feathers back to the buyer, who then paid Branson $650 and received the feathers in the mail.

Eagle feathers lined up on a table.
Branson sent these photos to an unknown buyer, who paid him $650 for them.

Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Montana

On March 13, traffic officers pulled Branson over for a routine stop in Polson, Montana and found golden eagle claws and feathers in his vehicle. They found the rest of the eagle’s body in a field nearby.

Branson will be sentenced on July 31.

December 2023: A federal grand jury issued an indictment on Dec. 7 in the U.S. District Court of Montana charging the 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. 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. 

Read Next: Two Idaho Poachers Banned From Hunting and Possessing Firearms for Killing a Golden Eagle

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.

This story was updated on March 21, 2024 to include new details on the status of Travis John Branson’s prosecution.