Washington Man Accused of Killing Bald and Golden Eagles Pleads Not Guilty to Federal Charges

Travis John Branson is charged with conspiracy, unlawful trafficking of bald and golden eagles and Lacey Act violations, the indictment states

By Maggie Dresser
A bald eagle perched in a tree on Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake on June 4, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A 48-year-old Washington man suspected of conspiring to unlawfully kill bald and golden eagles on the Flathead Indian Reservation and then illegally sell them on the black market across the United States and internationally pleaded not guilty Monday in federal court to multiple charges.

Travis John Branson, of Cusick, Wash., entered the plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathleen L. DeSoto in U.S. District Court in Missoula. He was indicted on charges of conspiracy, unlawful trafficking of bald and golden eagles and Lacey Act violations.

If convicted of the most serious crime, Branson faces a maximum of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.

Branson appeared on a summons and was released pending further proceedings. A co-defendant in the case, Simon Paul, failed to appear on a summons, and the court ordered that a warrant be issued for his arrest.

According to court documents, from January 2015 until March 2021, Paul and Branson conspired to illegally kill and sell bald and golden eagles near Ronan on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Investigators uncovered messages from Branson and others describing the illegal activity by stating, “[O]ut [here] committing felonies,” and telling buyers he was on “a killing spree” to obtain eagle tail feathers for future sales.

Paul, Branson and others hunted and killed eagles on the Flathead Reservation and elsewhere. In total, the defendants killed approximately 3,600 birds, including eagles. Paul and Branson then illegally sold eagle feathers and parts on the black market for significant sums of cash nationally and internationally.

The indictment further alleges that Branson traveled from Washington to the Flathead Reservation to shoot bald and golden eagles, and that Paul was a “shooter” and “shipper” of eagles for Branson.

Additionally, Branson allegedly sent a text message on Dec. 17, 2020, to a purchaser with a photo of a golden eagle tail set. On the same date, Branson received a PayPal purchase for the golden eagle set. Two days later, Paul mailed the golden eagle set from St. Ignatius, Mont., to a Texas address.

On Dec. 21, 2020, Branson received a text message from the purchaser that said, “Got that thang from Simon. And the mirror feathers. Tnks.”

In addition, the indictment alleges that on March 13, 2021, Branson and Paul previously killed deer to lure eagles and that Branson shot a golden eagle. Paul cleaned the golden eagle and both defendants placed various golden eagle parts in a vehicle for transport.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act was enacted in 1940 to protect the bald eagle, recognizing that the bald eagle is not only a bird of biological interest but also this country’s national symbol. In 1962, Congress extended the Act to protect golden eagles.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ryan G. Weldon and Randy Tanner are prosecuting the case. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Flathead Tribal Law Enforcement conducted the investigation.