Sunday, April 14, 2024
73.0°F

Washington man admits to killing eagles on reservation

by U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Montana
| March 28, 2024 12:00 AM

A Washington man admitted last Wednesday, March 20, to conspiring to hunt and kill bald and golden eagles on the Flathead Indian Reservation and then selling them on the black market across the United States and elsewhere, U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich said.

Travis John Branson, 48, of Cusick, Wash., pleaded guilty to conspiracy, two counts of unlawful trafficking of bald and golden eagles and violation of the Lacey Act, which prohibits interstate trade in wildlife that has been taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of federal or state law.

The Lacey Act also prohibits any person from making or submitting any false record, account, label for or identification of wildlife that has been or was intended to be transported in interstate or foreign commerce.

In court documents, the government alleged that from about January 2015 until about March 2021, Branson and others hunted and killed eagles on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Branson then sold the eagles on the black market across the United States and elsewhere.

Brandon traveled from Washington to the Flathead Reservation, where he met co-defendant, Simon Paul, and they would then shoot, transport and ship bald and golden eagles for future black-market sales. Co-defendant Paul remains a fugitive.

The government further alleged that on March 1, 2021, a purchaser asked if Branson had any eagle feathers for sale. Branson responded by sending two pictures of golden eagle tail feathers. The purchaser sent Branson $650 via PayPal.

Branson sent a package to the purchaser that contained the eagle feathers, and the purchaser confirmed receipt of the package by text message.

On March 13, 2021, Branson shot and killed a golden eagle near Polson. Law enforcement stopped Branson and recovered from Branson’s vehicle the feet and feathers of the golden eagle. Later, law enforcement recovered the remainder of the golden eagle carcass in a field.

During the stop, law enforcement also seized multiple phones. After obtaining a federal search warrant for the phones, law enforcement recovered numerous photos and text messages identifying the shooting, killing and ultimate selling of bald and golden eagles throughout the United States.

Branson knew killing and selling eagles was illegal and that he did not have a permit for any of the activities. When negotiating a purchase price for eagle feathers with a potential buyer, Branson said:

“I don’t get em for free though … out hear committing felonies”

Branson told another potential buyer he would obtain other eagle tails by “[g]oing on a killing spree.”

Further, Branson acknowledged that international shipping was illegal:

“International is still illegal ... I just get em for 99 cents … price of a bullet ... lol.”

Branson faces a maximum of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release on the conspiracy and Lacey Act charges. Branson also faces a maximum of one year in prison, a $5,000 fine and one year of supervised release for the first conviction of unlawful trafficking of bald and golden eagles, a misdemeanor. 

Branson faces an enhanced felony provision, which applies to the second or subsequent convictions of unlawful trafficking of bald and golden eagles, of a maximum of two years in prison, a $10,000 fine and one year of supervised release.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathleen L. DeSoto presided. A sentencing date was set for July 31 before U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen. Branson’s release was continued pending further proceedings.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ryan G. Weldon and Randy Tanner are prosecuting the case. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Flathead Tribal Law Enforcement conducted the investigation.