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Washington man accused of conspiring to unlawfully kill and sell eagles arraigned on charges

A co-defendant in the case failed to appear on a summons, and the court ordered that a warrant be issued for his arrest
Posted at 11:23 AM, Jan 09, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-09 13:23:40-05

MISSOULA — A Washington man suspected of conspiring to unlawfully kill bald and golden eagles on the Flathead Indian Reservation and then illegally sell them on the black market across the United States and elsewhere was arraigned on Monday, U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich said.

Travis John Branson, 48, of Cusick, Washington, pleaded not guilty to an indictment charging him with conspiracy, unlawful trafficking of bald and golden eagles and Lacey Act violations.

If convicted of the most serious crime, Branson faces a maximum of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.

Branson appeared on a summons and was released pending further proceedings.
Co-defendant, Simon Paul, failed to appear on a summons, and the court ordered that a warrant be issued for his arrest, a news release states.

As alleged in the indictment, from about January 2015 until about March 2021, near Ronan, on the Flathead Indian Reservation, Paul and Branson conspired to illegally kill and offer for sale bald and golden eagles.

Investigators 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.

Paul, Branson and others hunted and killed eagles on the Flathead Reservation and elsewhere. In total, the defendants killed approximately 3,600 birds, including eagles. Paul and Branson then illegally sold eagle feathers and parts on the black market for significant sums of cash across the United States and elsewhere.

The indictment further alleges that Branson traveled from Washington to the Flathead Reservation to shoot bald and golden eagles, and that Paul was a “shooter” and “shipper” of eagles for Branson.

The indictment also alleges that on Dec. 17, 2020, Branson sent a text message to a purchaser with a photo of a golden eagle tail set. On the same date, Branson received a PayPal purchase for the golden eagle tail set.

Two days later, Paul mailed the golden eagle set from St. Ignatius, Montana, to Texas. On Dec. 21, 2020, Branson received a text message from the purchaser that said, “Got that thang from Simon. And the mirror feathers. Tnks.”

In addition, the indictment alleges that on March 13, 2021, Branson and Paul returned to a previously killed deer to lure eagles and that Branson shot a golden eagle. Paul cleaned the golden eagle and both defendants placed various golden eagle parts in a vehicle for transport.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act was enacted in 1940 to protect the bald eagle, recognizing that the bald eagle is not only a bird of biological interest but also this country’s national symbol. In 1962, Congress extended the Act to protect golden eagles.

An indictment is merely an accusation, and a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathleen L. DeSoto presided.

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.