Travis John Branson, a 48-year-old resident of Cusick, Washington, appeared for arraignment Monday, January 8th, on multiple charges, accused of participating in a scheme to unlawfully kill bald and golden eagles on the Flathead Indian Reservation. U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich outlined the indictment, stating that Branson pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiracy, unlawful trafficking of eagles, and violations of the Lacey Act.

Charges and Potential Penalties

If convicted of the most serious offense, Branson could face a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a fine of $250,000, and three years of supervised release. The arraignment was presided over by U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathleen L. DeSoto, who released Branson pending further legal proceedings. However, his co-defendant, Simon Paul, failed to appear, prompting the court to issue a warrant for his arrest.

Alleged Conspiracy and Illegal Activities

The indictment details the alleged conspiracy between Paul and Branson from around January 2015 to March 2021, centered near Ronan on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The pair purportedly conspired to illegally hunt, kill, and sell bald and golden eagles. Investigators uncovered incriminating messages suggesting the illegal activities, with Branson and associates reportedly admitting to felonies and referring to themselves as being on a "killing spree" to obtain eagle tail feathers for sale.

In total, the indictment alleges that approximately 3,600 birds, including eagles, were killed by the defendants, who then trafficked their feathers and parts on the black market for substantial amounts of money across the United States and elsewhere.

Specific Incidents and Transactions

The document further outlines specific incidents, including text exchanges between Branson and a purchaser regarding the sale of a golden eagle tail set in December 2020. The transaction allegedly involved Branson receiving a PayPal purchase for the eagle tail set, which was then mailed by Paul from St. Ignatius, Montana, to Texas. Additionally, the indictment describes a March 2021 incident where Branson and Paul allegedly returned to a location where a deer had been killed earlier to attract and shoot a golden eagle. Paul is said to have cleaned the bird, and both defendants transported various parts of the golden eagle in a vehicle.

Legal Context and Investigation

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, established in 1940 and expanded in 1962, was designed to safeguard these iconic birds, recognizing their significance as not only a vital part of the ecosystem but also as national symbols of the United States.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ryan G. Weldon and Randy Tanner are prosecuting the case, which involved investigative efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and Flathead Tribal Law Enforcement.

The indictment serves as an accusation, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

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