When temptation to traffic in eagle parts shuts off the brain, criminal indictments often follow

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler outlines charges in eagle case
"And know there is more
That you can't see, can't hear;
Can't know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren't always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like Eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings."
-- From Eagle Poem, by Joy Harjo


Eagle killing is a big deal. A big bad deal. So I was interested in the news conference, but I wasn’t sure I’d go.

It was being organized by U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler and some of his staff, so I presumed it would be held in a cramped room in the federal building in downtown Rapid City. That’s bad enough. Even worse, to get to that room, I’d have to dump my pockets in a little plastic tray and walk apprehensively through one of those gate-style metal detectors while being observed by stern-faced security personnel.

Cramped rooms and metal detectors and stern faces looming inside austere government buildings don’t appeal to me much these days. I have better options, ranging from the front-yard flower beds to the aspen groves near Cement Ridge or somewhere in the middle of Vanocker Canyon.

I could catch up with the news part of the news conference later, after all, and get the news release and court documents from the USA’s office. So being there wasn’t essential.

“I assume it’s being held there in the federal building?” I said to the woman who answered the phone at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Rapid City, where I’d called for details.

“No,” the woman said. “It’s at the Outdoor Campus West.”

And that was the difference-maker, along with the essential subject matter of illegal eagle trafficking.

The Outdoor Campus West is one of my favorite places. I go there often when there is no news conference, just to eyeball the trout and bluegills and bass in the pond out front, to confer with the wood ducks in the back pond or to check out the indoor aquarium and stroll through the mounted critters in the educational displays.

Those displays include stuffed eagles, one of which “flew” above the news conference Friday morning, hanging from the high ceiling of a commons area as Seiler outlined the federal indictments against 16 people for illegal trafficking in eagles and other migratory birds.

This followed the first phase of the indictments, which Seiler announced in April, during a day when I had an unbreakable commitment to a fly rod and a stream. But Seiler noted then that 15 people had been charged through evidence compiled during the two-year undercover operation Project Dakota Flyer. Some were accused of killing eagles, cutting them up and stuffing the parts in garbage bags, for later processing and sale.

Seiler told reporters in April that the operation amounted to a “chop shop for eagles.”

Seiler also indicated in April that more was coming. And this second round of indictments brings the total to 31. It also reveals what Seiler called  “the underbelly and breadth of the black market that exists for eagles and other migratory bird parts.”

It’s a big, unseemly underbelly that stretches far beyond South Dakota and nearby states and even into foreign lands. Illegal merchandise includes craft items made with eagle parts traditionally used in Native American ceremonies or celebrations. The two-part phase of the indictments included defendants from western South Dakota, Wyoming, Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota.

“In this round of indictments, we focused on individuals who were selling for cash illegal eagle and migratory bird items and also focused on established businesses around the state that were involved in trafficking migratory bird parts,” Seiler said Friday, under the spread wings of the stuffed eagle.

Those charged include several pawn shops and a defendant alleged to have been selling illegal bird parts online. Seiler said hitting the businesses is an important way to show the legal dangers in engaging in the black-market sales.

“It sends a message that everyone who kills or traffics in protected birds will be investigated and  prosecuted whenever appropriate, regardless of where or how the sale takes place,” he said. “The cycle of killing protected birds continues if the ability to sell these items is available.”

The investigation and forensics work by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensic laboratory linked about 240 bald and golden eagles and more than 150 hawks and owls to the parts confiscated.There were also a variety of other birds involved, including some native to other countries. Some of the birds were killed in South Dakota. It's impossible to know how many.

If found guilty, defendants face penalties up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, depending on whether the defendants are being charged with misdemeanors or felonies. Seiler said the decision on whether to charge a felony or misdemeanor was based largely on the number of illegal transactions or parts.

Steve Oberholtzer, special agent in charge of law enforcement in the eight-state Mountain-Prairie region for the USFWS, joined Seiler at the news conference and spoke of the importance of eagles to American people. That importance goes back more than 200 years, to when the Continental Congress selected the eagle as a prominent part of the national seal.

And the eagle remains important as as symbol of freedom, Oberholtzer said. But the parts of dead eagles also have value, and not just on the black market  that federal agents are seeking to squeeze. Eagle parts are especially important to Native Americans, for their use in ceremonies and traditional garb.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a system in place that collects, stores and makes eagle parts available to Native Americans for spiritual and cultural uses.

The Fish and Wildlife Service maintains the National Eagle Repository near Denver to handle eagle carcasses, which were found dead in the wild, or confiscated through operations like Project Dakota Flyer and other law-enforcement work. Through an application-request system, the parts are then made available to members of federally recognized tribes.

Oberholtzer said the repository receives about 2,500 eagles a year and gets about 3,500 annual requests for parts. Waiting times for parts can range from weeks to years, depending on the part and the bird. Young golden eagles are particularly important for some western tribes because the young birds have a white-and-black pattern on the tail that is used in ceremonial garb. So they are in high demand, with long waiting periods.

So it’s important to protect eagles while they’re alive and to assure the eagle parts that are available are properly stored and processed and made available for Native Americans purposes in a carefully regulated system, Oberholtzer said. There is no such regulation and care in the black-market trade, where greed is the primary motivator, rather than Native traditions, he said.

“Through cases like this, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service supports the spiritual and cultural use of eagle parts by Native Americans,” he said.

The value of continuing such important cultural traditions, and the value of individual eagles in the wild, seems impossible to estimate. But the Department of Justice uses a study designed specifically for that purpose to develop a per-bird value of $10,000 for use in imposing civil penalties against those who kill or sell or otherwise engage in eagle trafficking. And Seiler said prosecutors plan to seek civil penalties on top of criminal punishment in these cases.

Initial appearances for the most recent round of defendants are scheduled to begin Oct. 6 in Pierre, followed appearances Oct. 11 in Rapid City and Oct. 12 in Aberdeen.

These latest indictments will conclude Project Dakota Flyer, for the most part. But as the defendants and their lawyers discuss disposition of the cases, it’s possible — even likely — that new information on trafficking will be revealed.

“Certainly, to the extent that we receive additional information as part of that process, we will follow those leads wherever they take us,” Seiler said.

Which could be to someone else who illegally kills or sells or buys eagles and other raptors, or their parts. Intelligence from the investigation here in South Dakota is already being shared with federal investigators in western and southwestern states. Seiler said charges there are likely.

Something else seems likely, too: Seiler won’t be the last U.S. Attorney for South Dakota to stand at a microphone and talk about criminal investigations against people who trade in eagle parts. He certainly wasn’t the first.

The first time I covered federal work to stop illegal eagle killing and trafficking was in the early 1980s. At that time, John Cooper was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent in charge of law enforcement for the Dakotas and Nebraska. A California Native, Vietnam vet and former military investigator, Cooper came to the Dakotas with the Fish and Wildlife Service and quickly fell in love with the place, and its wildlife. He settled in Pierre, where he directed a number of major undercover operations on a variety of poaching and illegal wildlife taking and trade.

Like the most recent investigation, that early '80s eagle case was long and complex.

“The undercover portion of that case, where we bought feathers from people who were in the business of making fans and headdresses and hair ties and all that kind of stuff, which there was a market for, lasted right at 19 months,” Cooper said. “And we brought in agents from outside the state and they basically set up their cover as people who were in that business.”

Some of the killing of eagles took place then, in one of many sad ironies of the case, on the Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge near Pickstown. The 1,000-acre refuge along the Missouri River below Fort Randall Dam was created in 1974 and was named for former South Dakota Sen. Karl Mundt, as a tribute to his support of the Endangered Species Act and its approval in 1966.

It was the first refuge dedicated specifically to the American bald eagle, when that bird was still on the endangered species list. And those endangered symbols of freedom gathered there in the winter months, sometimes by the hundreds, in massive cottonwood trees that are among the last stands of historic riverside habitat flooded by the Missouri River dams.

Bald eagles have come back from their precarious position in the lower 48 states to the point they were upgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” status in 1995 and removed from the endangered and threatened species list entirely in 2007.

But bald and golden eagles are still protected specifically under federal laws that include the Eagle Protection Act, which allows the taking of eagles only under exceedingly rare circumstances approved by the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In 2014, the Fish & Wildlife Service, which is within the Interior Department, took what appeared to be an unprecedented action in authorizing the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming to take two bald eagles for spiritual purposes. The tribe had sued the agency in federal court, arguing that that religious freedom of tribal members was being denied when the agency turned down requests for kill permits.

But outside of such aberrations, the prohibitions against eagle killing are inviolate. And work to protect and preserve the birds goes on as a vital part of wildlife law enforcement in this nation. Federal officials contend that such work also helps protect the process that provides eagle parts, through a legal request system, to members of federally recognized tribes for legitimate cultural and spiritual uses.

That seems like the best and fairest way for eagle parts to be distributed, for the sake of Native ceremony but also for the birds themselves. And so it’s hard to argue with laws and investigations aimed at preventing illegal eagle killing and trafficking.

It can get complicated, though, when some of those charged with killing eagles and selling or buying their parts are Native Americans, as they have been in South Dakota cases. The investigation Cooper worked on had one case for one Native American that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dwight Dion was charged with shooting and selling several eagles in violation of the Endangered Species Act and Eagle Protection Act. Dion was convicted in district court but appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that as a Yankton Sioux Tribe member Dion had a treaty right to kill eagles on reservation land for non-commercial use. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Dion’s contention that he had a treaty right to kill eagles that surpassed the Endangered Species Act and Eagle Protection Act.

After finishing his USFWS career and serving 12 years as secretary of the state Game, Fish & Parks Department, Cooper is retired and living in Pierre. But he is still deeply involved in hunitng, fishing and wildlife conservation. He understands the need to provide eagle parts to Native Americans for ceremony and tradition garb,  and believes the National Eagle Repository systesm is the best way to support that. But there’s no justification for illegally killing eagles, he said.

Yet it continues, even with the risks of arrest and prosecution.

“You’ve got that illicit market out there and it’s tempting,” Cooper said. “And with some people the temptation just overcomes them and their brains kind of fall out on the ground.”

Unfortunately, that kind of commercially inspired brain drop is likely to continue for a few people, as are the cases against those who give in, Cooper said.

“It has seemed to many of us who have worked on cases like this that this thing just kind of keeps on going,” Cooper said. “There’s a market for well-made eagle items that people kind of decorate their homes with or put in their businesses, or what have you. And if there’s a market, there’s somebody out there willing to do the illegal stuff to supply it.”

That’s a sad note, but a realistic one. And it’s something I pondered after the news conference while I strolled through the inspiring environs of the Outdoor Campus West.

 As usual, it was a busy place. Through one door a classroom was busy with kids, archery gear in hands and instructors at their sides, learning about bow hunting. Through another door I wandered past a collection of fishing rods and reels outside to the front pond, where another group of kids enjoyed a lunch break during a fishing class.

Kids and wildlife. And the future of both.

It’ll be a much better future if it includes plenty of eagles — and not just the kind that hang from the ceiling on wires.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.