April 25 (UPI) — More than a dozen people face federal charges stemming from what authorities called a “chop shop” in South Dakota that trafficked bald eagles and dozens of other bird species, the U.S. Department of Justice said Tuesday.
An indictment unsealed Monday revealed charges against 15 people that vary from conspiracy to unspecified violations of three federal wildlife laws.
According to prosecutors, the accused participated in a network that illegally possessed bald eagles — the national bird and animal of the United States — and 39 other species and sold parts, such as feathers, for profit. The defendants are accused of committing the various violations in South Dakota in 2015 and 2016.
A minimum of 200 birds — and 100 bald and golden eagles — were killed, usually shot, dismembered and then trafficked by the suspects, officials said. Sellers and buyers coordinated the transactions online and at various locations in western South Dakota.
“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,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Special Agent-in-charge Dan Rolince said. “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.”
Among the items sold were a golden eagle head for $250 and two pairs of eagle wings for $900, officials said.
Six of the 15 charged in Monday’s indictment, who prosecutors believe were the main operators, face a charge of conspiracy to commit wildlife trafficking. One, Troy Fairbanks, owns Buffalo Dreamers, a Rapid City-based Native American Lakota dance company — which prominently features the bald eagle throughout its website.
“These [birds] were treated like garbage. They were in Walmart bags. They were in garbage bags. They were spread out all over the house,” U.S. Attorney Randolph J. Seiler said at a news conference Tuesday. “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.”
Other protected birds were also trafficked, according to investigators who spent two years on the case, called Project Dakota Flyer.
Thirteen of the 15 defendants face charges of violating at least two of three federal wildlife laws — the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (1940), the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918), and the Lacey Act (1900).
The first law was enacted to protect bald eagles and says a person cannot “take, possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, at any time or any manner, any bald eagle … alive or dead, or any part, nest, or egg thereof.” It was amended by President John Kennedy in 1962 to include the golden eagle.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act extends similar protections to certain migratory birds — including the barn owl, American black vulture, common nighthawk, red-tailed hawk, American crow and Canada goose.
The Lacey Act bars unlawful trafficking of wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold.
Charged in the indictment are: Troy Fairbanks, 54; Majestic Fairbanks, 22; Troy Young Fairbanks, 24; Alvin Brown, Jr., 37; Michael Primeaux, 32; Juan Mesteth, 39; Aaron David West, 62; Aaron David West, Jr., 33; Jorge Pena, 44; Valencia Neck, 38; Benjamin Iron Hawk, 44; Chet Christensen, 66; Ronald Fisher, 64; Gary Fisher, 69; David Jasper, 60.
Authorities said more charges are expected in the case. Initial court appearances for the defendants of Monday’s indictment are scheduled for next month in Rapid City and Pierre.