Man Pleads Guilty in ‘Killing Spree’ of Bald Eagles in Montana


One of two men accused of shooting 3,600 birds in Montana, including bald and golden eagles, in an illegal “killing spree” pleaded guilty to taking part in a scheme to sell the dead birds on the black market, federal prosecutors said on Wednesday.

In a plea deal, Travis John Branson, 48, of Washington State, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, two counts of illegally trafficking bald and golden eagles, and one count of violating the Lacey Act, a federal law prohibiting the sale of illegally acquired wildlife, the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Montana said.

Mr. Branson faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for the conspiracy and Lacey Act charges, prosecutors said.

In December, a grand jury indicted Mr. Branson and his co-defendant Simon Paul, 42, of Montana, on 15 counts, most of them for illegal trafficking of eagles. Prosecutors agreed to drop 11 of those counts for Mr. Branson, according to the plea agreement.

Mr. Paul, who did not appear at his arraignment, prosecutors said, is still on the run. His sentencing is set for July 31 at the U.S. District Court in Montana, prosecutors said.

From January 2015 to March 2021, the two men routinely met on the prairies of the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana to hunt eagles that they would later sell, prosecutors said. Mr. Branson would travel from Washington State to meet Mr. Paul on the reservation, where he lived, prosecutors said.

The men sold the eagles’ wings, tails and, on one occasion, a whole eagle, according to the indictment. Prosecutors did not say how much money the men made from sales, noting only that the bird parts were sold for “significant sums of cash.”

At one point they devised a hunting strategy in which they set out a deer carcass to lure in the birds, according to the indictment, which also quoted text messages between Mr. Branson and buyers.

In one message, Mr. Branson told a buyer that he was “on a killing spree” to stock up on eagle tail feathers. In another, he wrote that he was out “committing felonies,” according to the indictment.

He also seemed to acknowledge in a separate message that shipping the birds internationally was illegal, prosecutors said.

Mr. Branson’s public defender, Andrew J. Nelson, could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday evening. Messages left at a phone number and sent to an email address listed for Mr. Branson were immediately returned.

A lawyer listed in court records for Mr. Paul declined to comment.

The killing of bald eagles was seen as particularly flagrant in a country where the bird is the national symbol and was once considered an endangered species.

It was unclear how many of the 3,600 birds prosecutors said the men killed were eagles. Clair J. Howard, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment.

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