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Man Pleads Guilty to Bald Eagle ‘Killing Spree,’ Co-Defendant Still at Large

A Washington man faces up to 5 years in prison for four felonies, while his co-defendant remains on the run from authorities.
bald eagle(Photo/Shutterstock)
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Over 6 years, two men conspired to illegally kill 3,600 birds in Montana and sell them on the black market, federal officials said this week.

One of those men, 48-year-old Travis John Branson of Washington, has pled guilty to the scheme and could face years in prison and a hefty fine. His co-defendant, 42-year-old Simon Paul of Montana, did not appear for his initial court date and is “considered a fugitive,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

In January 2015, Branson and Paul started to meet on the prairies of the Flathead Indian Reservation to illegally hunt bald and golden eagles, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said this week. They would then sell, transport, and ship bird parts, like feathers and feet, to buyers on the black market.

The years-long scheme lasted until March 13, 2021, when law enforcement stopped Branson’s vehicle after he had shot and killed a golden eagle near Polson, Mont. Police found the bird’s feet and feathers in the vehicle, as well as multiple phones. After obtaining a search warrant to search the devices, investigators discovered incriminating photos and texts.

“I don’t get ’em for free though …out hear [sic] committing felonies,” Branson said in a text message. “I just get ’em for 99 cents ..price of a bullet..lol.”

eagle feet
An image taken by law enforcement of an eagle illegally killed by Branson; (photo/U.S. Attorney’s Office)

Stiff Penalties for Convicted Poacher

So, just how many bald and golden eagles did Branson and his co-defendant kill? It’s still unclear, as prosecutors have not given a specific breakdown of species among the 3,600 birds killed and sold over 6 years.

Prosecutors also did not include an estimate of how much money the men made from selling the birds.

However, Branson received $650 in a March 2021 PayPal transaction for a package of golden eagle tail feathers, officials said. After receiving the inquiry from a buyer, Branson sent two photos, each with about 12 feathers (an eagle typically has a dozen tail feathers). Receipt of the shipment was verified via text message.

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

eagle tail feathers
An image of golden eagle tail feathers sent by Branson to a potential buyer; (photo/U.S. Attorney’s Office)

He has now pled guilty to four charges: one count of conspiracy, two counts of unlawful trafficking of bald and golden eagles, and a violation of the Lacey Act, which prohibits interstate trade in wildlife that has been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold.

Branson faces a maximum of 5 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and 3 years of supervised release on the conspiracy and Lacey Act charges. He also faces possible prison sentences and fines for unlawful trafficking of eagles, a misdemeanor, and enhanced felony provisions for repeated convictions of illegal trafficking.

A judge could decide Branson’s sentence during a July 31 trial date.

A spokesperson for federal prosecutors declined to comment on the case. The attorney for Branson, Andrew J. Nelson, could not be reached on Friday.

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