17 people, 2 pawn shops sentenced in eagle trafficking case

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Nineteen defendants were sentenced following an undercover investigation into the illegal trafficking of body parts from eagles and other protected birds, federal authorities in South Dakota said Thursday.

U.S. Attorney Ron Parsons' office said in a statement that 17 people from several states and two South Dakota pawn shops were sentenced in federal court for various violations under the Lacey Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The investigation dubbed Project Dakota Flyer offered a rare view into the black market for eagle carcasses, feathers and other parts, and handicrafts.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said Project Dakota Flyer spurred 31 indictments, with 12 defendants' cases still pending. The sentences announced Thursday range from prison time to fines for the defendants that include nine men and five women from South Dakota, a man from North Dakota, a man from Iowa, a man from Idaho and the two pawn shops in South Dakota.

"This investigation has demonstrated the breadth of the illegal black market for eagle and other migratory bird parts," Parsons said. "It is our goal to completely eliminate the unauthorized killing and selling of bald eagles, golden eagles and other protected species."

Parsons' office said the operation used undercover techniques to buy protected bird parts from 51 suspects over 19 months. Authorities said the purchases happened over the internet and in Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Edward Grace, acting assistant director of the Office of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in the statement that agents and forensic scientists found more than 35 bird species — spanning every continent but Antarctica — had been trafficked.

"This operation, which began in America's heartland, illustrates how wildlife trafficking is a global crisis," Grace said.

Not only are eagles the national symbol of the United States, they're widely considered sacred by Native Americans. Federal law limits possession of eagle feathers and other parts to enrolled members of federally recognized tribes who use them in religious practices. Hunting them generally remains illegal.

"Importantly, nothing in this investigation was done to infringe upon traditional Native American use of eagle parts for cultural or spiritual purposes," Parsons said.

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