BY MATTHEW BROWN
A Washington state man accused of helping kill more than 3,000 birds — including eagles on a Montana Indian reservation — then illegally selling their carcasses and feathers intends to plead guilty to illegal wildlife trafficking and other criminal charges, court documents show.
Federal prosecutors say Travis John Branson and others killed about 3,600 birds during a yearslong “killing spree” on the Flathead Indian Reservation and elsewhere. Feathers and other parts of eagles and other birds are highly prized among many Native American tribes for use in sacred ceremonies and during powwows.
Branson of Cusick, Washington, will plead guilty under an agreement with prosecutors to reduced charges including conspiracy, wildlife trafficking and two counts of unlawful trafficking of eagles, according to court documents filed Tuesday. The documents did not detail how many birds he will admit to killing.
A second suspect, Simon Paul of St. Ignatius, Montana, remains at large after an arrest warrant was issued when he failed to show up for an initial court appearance in early January. His attorney, Dwight Schulte, declined to comment Tuesday.
The defendants are accused of selling eagle parts on a black market that has been a long-running problem for U.S. wildlife officials. Illegal shootings are a leading cause of golden eagle deaths, according to a recent government study.
Immature golden eagle feathers are especially valued among tribes, and a tail set from one of the birds can sell for several hundred dollars, according to details disclosed during a separate trafficking case in South Dakota last year in which a Montana man was sentenced to three years in prison.
A grand jury in December indicted the two men on 15 criminal charges. They worked with others — who haven’t been named by authorities — to hunt and kill the birds and on at least one occasion used a dead deer to lure an eagle that was killed, according to the indictment.
Federal officials have not said how many eagles were killed or what other kinds of birds were involved in the scheme, which they say began in 2015 and continued until 2021. The indictment included details on only 13 eagles and eagle parts that were allegedly trafficked by the defendants.
Branson, who was released from custody following a Jan. 8 court appearance, faces years in prison and substantial fines under the terms of the plea agreement. He also would be responsible for complete restitution of damages, including from offenses that would be dismissed under the plea deal.
Branson did not respond to a message left at a publicly listed phone number for him. His attorney, Assistant Federal Defender Andrew Nelson, declined to comment on the agreement.
Text messages obtained by investigators showed Branson and others telling buyers he was “on a killing spree” to collect more eagle tail feathers for future sales, according to the indictment. Prosecutors described Paul as a shooter and shipper of eagles for Branson.
Bald eagles are the national symbol of the United States, and both bald and golden eagles are widely considered sacred by American Indians. U.S. law prohibits anyone without a permit from killing, wounding or disturbing eagles, or taking their nests or eggs. Even taking feathers found in the wild can be a crime.
Federally recognized tribes can apply for permits with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take a bald or golden eagle for religious purposes, and enrolled tribal members can apply for eagle feathers and other parts from the National Eagle Repository. But there’s a lengthy backlog of requests that eagle researchers say is driving the black market for eagle parts.
The operator of a tribal feather repository in Oklahoma said law enforcement officials need to be prosecuting those who buy the feathers — not just traffickers — if they want to disrupt the market.
“The buyers need to be made examples of,” said Bill Voelker, a member of the Comanche Nation and executive director of Sia: The Comanche Nation Ethno-Ornithological Initiative in Cyril, Oklahoma. “That’s the only way they’re going to tackle it so there’s less of this going on and fewer birds losing their lives.”
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Black lawmakers in California on Wednesday introduced a package of reparations legislation, calling it a starting point to atone for the state's legacy of discrimination.
The California Legislative Black Caucus introduced the package of more than a dozen proposals months after a first-in-the nation reparations task force sent a report, two years in the making, to lawmakers recommending how the state should apologize and offer redress to Black Californians. The package doesn't include widespread direct cash payments to Black families.
"We are witnessing the effects of the longstanding institution of slavery and how that impacts our communities," Democratic Assemblymember Mike Gipson said at a press conference at the state Capitol.
The proposals must now garner political support as the state faces a massive budget deficit. Reparations advocates were quick to criticize the package's exclusion of widespread compensation. Other critics said many of the proposals fall outside of the scope of reparations, and some say they would be too costly to implement.
Here are some of the ideas:
CALIFORNIA AMERICAN FREEDMEN AFFAIRS AGENCY
A bill by Sen. Steven Bradford, a Los Angeles-area Democrat who was a task force member, would create an agency known as the California American Freedmen Affairs Agency to administer reparations programs and help Black families research their family lineage. Lawmakers have not yet released an estimate for how much this would cost.
California voters passed an initiative in 1996 to ban the consideration of race, color, sex and nationality in public employment, education and contracting decisions. Voters again decided to uphold that law in 2020.
One of the reparations proposals would allow the governor to approve exceptions to that law in order to address poverty and improve educational outcomes for African Americans and other groups. It would need to pass both houses of the Legislature by a two-thirds vote before heading to voters.
COMPENSATION FOR LAND THAT WAS TAKEN
Bradford introduced a bill for the state to compensate families whose property was seized through eminent domain as a result of racism and discrimination. Bradford did not offer details Wednesday on how the state would determine whether property was seized due to racist motives. The proposal comes after Los Angeles County in 2022 returned a beachfront property to the descendants of its Black owners decades after local officials seized it from them.
Under one proposal, the state would formally acknowledge California's legacy of slavery and discrimination and require lawmakers to create a formal apology. In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a formal apology for the state's historical mistreatment of Native Americans.
BANNING FORCED PRISON LABOR
The package includes a proposed amendment to the state constitution to ban involuntary servitude. The goal is to prevent inmates from being forced to work while being paid wages that are often less than $1 an hour. Several other states have already passed similar proposals.
Newsom's administration opposed a previous version of the proposed amendment, citing the cost to taxpayers if the state had to start paying inmates the minimum wage. It failed to pass the state Senate in 2022.
The re-introduced proposal by Black Caucus Chair Lori Wilson, a Democratic assemblymember representing part of Solano County, passed the Assembly last year and is now being weighed by the Senate.
NO WIDESPREAD DIRECT PAYMENTS
The reparations package does not include widespread payments to descendants of Black people who were living in the United States by the end of the 19th century, which the reparations task force recommended. Lawmakers may introduce direct compensation in future years, Wilson said. They will first have to contend with the budget deficit and would have to build a coalition of support among other lawmakers.