Eagle Poaching Ring Busted in Federal Raids

by Don Jordan

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents have arrested or are seeking to arrest 35 people in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado responsible for killing and selling bald and golden eagles.

"Posing as traders of Indian artifacts, undercover agents were able to infiltrate a commercial trapping ring. They were told that in one pueblo during last year's winter migration, more than 60 eagles were intentionally killed either by being shot or caught in leg-hold traps baited with fresh meat," said a USFWS bulletin delivered to Inside Outdoors via e-mail.

"As the agency responsible for protecting this Nation's wildlife, we must put an end to the commercial killing of eagles and other migratory birds. We decided to move now to stop this slaughter to protect vulnerable eagle populations in the Southwest. By taking this action, we protect birds that are sacred to many Native American cultures", said John Rogers, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

According to the service, their agents found an illegal market for migratory bird parts "in which whole eagle skins, wings, tails, and wing bones; whole hawks, wings and tails; and owl wings were sold throughout New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Utah." Feathers were being sold to make popular native American items like Kachina dolls and dance bustles. The items were sold to trading posts, collectors, tourists and individuals participating in pow-wows. At least 25 species were being traded--from eagles and owls to flickers, scissor-tailed flycatchers and anhingas. All are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

A tremendous increase in prices brought on by the demand for feathers is said to be the main reason poachers get into the business. The USFWS says the price of an intact golden eagle fan quadrupled from $100 to $400 in 1988. Today, a single golden eagle feather sells for as much as $100. An anhinga feather peyote fan goes for $300. The presence of anhinga items shows the ring was not confined to only the Southwest. Anhingas live along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Louisiana.

Producing tourist items has resulted in "alarmingly high numbers of birds being killed for profit" according to the USFWS. "For example, to make an eagle fan it takes an entire tail from one eagle. To make a single scissor-tailed flycatcher fan, it can take 25 birds."

The case is now in the hands of John J. Kelly, U.S. Attorney for New Mexico in Albuquerque. The evidence in the form of bird carcasses, feathers and tourist items are at the National Eagle Repository near Denver. The USFWS receives 2,000 requests a year for eagle items from native Americans for recognized religious, cultural and ceremonial purposes.

The Bald Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act all protect both bald and golden eagles. Under these laws, it is illegal to take, possess, transport, sell or purchase any eagles or eagle parts without a permit. Maximum penalties under each law could total eight years in prison and $600,000 in fines. 12/22/96.

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