Two-year undercover operation yields large bird trafficking bust

RAPID CITY, S.D. -

United States Attorney Randolph Seiler and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service unsealed the indictments of 15 people Monday involved in an illegal bird trafficking ring after a two-year undercover investigation.

Project Dakota Flyer began after public tips to the Fish and Wildlife Service included 200 names potentially involved in the illegal trafficking of eagles and other protected birds. Over two years, confidential informants made their way into the ring and obtained audio and video proof of the illegal trafficking transactions. Officials said the ring spanned across nine states and into Canada.

Twelve of the 15 defendants are currently residing in South Dakota. Most of the defendants were served summonses to appear in court at the beginning of May for violation of a combination of the following laws: Conspiracy to commit wildlife trafficking, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Lacey Act, and felon in possession of a firearm. The defendants are listed at the bottom of the story.

Read more on the Lacey Act, Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Investigators said the birds were mostly shot, taken to residences and chopped up to be sold. Buyers, once proving they were trustworthy, were invited to use a secret site to communicate with sellers. The two parties then met in various locations, including secondhand shops in western South Dakota.

Officials also said 40 different species — including eagles, hawks and owls — and between 200 to 250 total birds, at minimum, were trafficked as part of the operation.

“These items were treated like garbage. They were in Walmart bags. They were in garbage bags. They were spread out all over the house. They didn’t know what they had,” Seiler, who presides over the district of South Dakota, said. “There was blood in vehicles, blood in trunks, and no effort whatsoever to afford the eagle or the eagle part any sense of tradition or culture or any aspect of spirituality with respect to how they were handled.”

Read one of the indictments.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has investigated similar rings and believe this could be one of the largest busts on record. For the first time in its history, the agency utilized a laboratory in Oregon for DNA testing tied to the case. Seiler said one person had DNA on approximately 100 birds.

Investigators said the for-profit, black market operation was producing large dividends for the sellers too.

“As with any black market, there’s a wide variety of prices depending on what the buyer and seller can negotiate, and the specific species,” said Dan Rolince, assistant special agent-in-charge with the Fish and Wildlife Service. “For instance, golden eagles bring a larger price than bald eagles. So, to put as an exact price is not possible. But in general terms, a whole eagle carcass would be sold for $1,000 to $1,200.”

Seiler and Rolince said Monday’s unsealed…

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