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19 sentenced so far in Upper Midwest wildlife trafficking crackdown

Aug 09, 2018 06:51AM ● Published by Editor

Eric Hartline / USA TODAY Sports file photo


By Barry Amundsen of the Forum News Service - August 8, 2018


PIERRE, S.D.—In one of the largest-ever wildlife trafficking investigations in the Midwest, 19 of the 31 people arrested in the undercover operation have been sentenced in federal court.

U.S. Attorney for South Dakota Ron Parsons, in a release on Tuesday, Aug. 7, said the sentences were handed down this spring and summer to nine men and five women from South Dakota, one man from North Dakota, one man from Idaho and two pawn shop operations in South Dakota.

The remaining 12 defendants, including some major players in the investigation, are in various stages in the court process, said Parson's office.

The convictions stem from investigations beginning four years ago when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated the undercover operation called Operation Project Dakota Flyer, focusing on trafficking of protected migratory birds, primarily bald and golden eagles.

The undercover agent purchased eagle and other protected bird parts from 51 suspects over a 19-month period with the "buys" taking place not only in South Dakota, but also Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa and over the internet, Parsons said.

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

Edward Grace, an official with the law enforcement unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said "the work of our special agents and forensic scientists revealed over 35 species of birds, from every continent except Antarctica, were trafficked. This operation, which began in America's heartland, illustrates how wildlife trafficking is a global crisis."

By federal law, it's illegal to possess, use or sell eagle feathers—a policy that is meant to deter hunters from poaching wild eagles for their feathers or body parts. A violation can result in a fine of up to $200,000, one year of imprisonment, or both.

However, the law, which is part of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act, stipulates that Native Americans can obtain a permit to gain access to golden eagles and bald eagles. The majestic birds have long held a significant role among Native Americans, who use the feathers in religious and cultural ceremonies.

Native Americans can obtain the feathers from the National Eagle Repository, a one-of-a-kind facility operated and managed by the Office of Law Enforcement, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Denver.

One controversial part of the South Dakota sentencing was restitution for the loss of the eagles and other migratory birds where it could be proved that a dead bird was trafficked as part of the illegal activity. Following extensive expert testimony, the five South Dakota federal judges who heard the cases adopted a restitution value for immature eagles at $5,000 and adult eagles at $10,000.

The restitution is going to the National Wildlife Foundation. Some of the defendants were also given fines.

Here is a look at what happened to the 19 defendants so far:

• Sheldon Tree Top, 44, of Mandan, N.D., was sentenced on April 4 to six months in federal prison, followed by one year of supervised release and restitution of $5,000. He was convicted of two violations of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

• Jorge Pena, 45, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was sentenced to five months of federal prison on each count, to run concurrently and restitution of $20,000. Pena pled guilty to violations of the Lacey Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

• Aaron David West Jr., 34, of Eagle Butte, S.D., was sentenced to two months in federal prison, six months of home confinement, one year of supervised release and restitution of $31,750 jointly with co-defendant and his father Aaron David West. West Jr. pleaded guilty to violations of the Bald and Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and Aiding and Abetting.

• Aaron David West, 63, of Eagle Butte, S.,D., was sentenced to one year of probation, which includes six months of home confinement and the restitution of $31,750 with his son. West pleaded guilty to a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and and Aiding and Abetting charge.

• Benjamin Iron Hawk, 45, of Mission, S.D., was sentenced on June 11, 2018, by Judge Lange to two months in federal prison, six months of home confinement and restitution of $28,750 jointly with co-defendant Valencia Neck. Iron Hawk pleaded guilty to a violation of the Lacey Act.

• Valencia Neck, 39, of Mission, S.D., was sentenced to one year or probation, which includes six months of home confinement and restitution of $28,750 jointly with Iron Hawk. Neck was convicted of a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

• Christopher Pomani, 38, of Chamberlain, S.D., was sentenced to two years of probation and a $500 fine. Pomani admitted to violations of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and Aiding and Abetting.

• Arvella Pomani, 36, of Box Elder, S.D., was sentenced to one year of probation and restitution of $16,800. Pomani pleaded guilty to a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and Aiding and Abetting.

• Chet Christensen, doing business as Chet's Place, 67, of Tuthill, S.D., was sentenced to one day of probation, a $3,000 fine and restitution of $3,500. Christensen admitted to a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

• Elray Rosaaen, doing business as Buffalo Gap Trading Post, 72, of Buffalo Gap, S.D., was given a $3,000 fine. Rosaaen was convicted on one count of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

• Manuel Lieras, 67, of Pocatello, Idaho, was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine and restitution of $900. Lieras admitted to a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

• Steven Marin, doing business as Mobridge Pawn, 47, of Selby, S.D., was ordered to pay a $3,000 fine. Marin pleaded guilty to a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

• Jeffrey Jensen, doing business as Jerry's Pawn Shop, 53, of Mobridge, S.D., was ordered to pay a fine of $3,000 and restitution of $1,750, jointly with co-defendant Amanda Silbernagel. Jensen admitted to a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

• Amanda Silbernagel, 30, also with Jerry's Pawn Shop, was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and restitution of $1,750 with co-defendant Jensen. Silbernagel admitted to a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

• Wanda Dupris, 45, of Eagle Butte, S.D., was sentenced to a fine of $1,000. Dupris admitted to a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

• Fair Deal Pawn, a business in Box Elder, S.D., was ordered to pay a fine of $3,000. Fair Deal Pawn violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

• Kenneth Foster, doing business as Rapid Pawn, of Box Elder, S.D., was ordered to pay a fine of $3,000. He admitted to a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

• Pawn With Us, a business in Rapid City, S.D., was ordered to pay a fine of $3,000. The business violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

• Melinda Sue Relf, also known as Melinda Sue Red Feather, 37, of Rapid City, S.D., was ordered to pay a fine of $1,000. She admitted to a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.


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