Federal agents yesterday broke up what they described as the largest known ring of suspected killers and traffickers in bald eagles, the nation's majestic emblem whose feathers, beaks and bones have become part of a lucrative international black market in native American artifacts.
Law enforcement officials issued warrants against 48 men and women in seven states from California to Florida as part of "Operation Eagle," a two-year undercover probe into the nationwide illegal "feather traffic" in bald eagles, golden eagles, songbirds, hawks and more than a dozen other birds protected by federal laws.
Displaying 23 frozen eagle carcasses sold to undercover agents for up to $1,000 each during the "sting" operation, Interior Secretary James G. Watt said the investigation will continue into "wanton killers and profiteers who would seek to destroy wildlife of this nation for their greedy profit."
"To appear in front of a table filled with the carcasses of our national emblem is a revolting and repulsive thing for any person to have to do," Watt said at a news conference in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Watt said as many as 300 bald eagles were slaughtered in three years near a South Dakota wildlife refuge established as a sanctuary. Many of the birds' feathers and parts were fashioned into colorful Indian headdresses, rattles, war bonnets and fans, and sold to collectors in the United States and Europe, according to spokesmen for Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service.
War bonnets made with eagle feathers sell for as much as $5,000, officials said. They said the investigation is aimed at killers and sellers of the eagle and other protected birds, rather than at commercial dealers.
The once-abundant bald eagle, which last year marked its bicentennial as the national bird, appeared in danger of disappearing in the 1960s partly because of widespread spraying of DDT and other pesticides. The soaring black-and-white bird has staged a comeback since the banning of DDT in 1972, but Interior officials say there are still only about 13,000 in the lower 48 states in winter and it is listed as an endangered species in 43 states.
The main threat to the bird's survival is the destruction of its habitat, officials said, but the killings in South Dakota and elsewhere were viewed by wildlife biologists as a major danger. The National Wildlife Federation has also called on Interior to investigate whether the birds are dying of lead poisoning by feeding on birds that swallow lead shotgun pellets.
It is illegal to kill, trade or possess a bald eagle or its parts under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which also protect hundreds of other birds.
Federal law allows American Indians to obtain bald eagle feathers for use in religious ceremonies. These are dispensed from a federal feather repository in Idaho, but the law forbids trading or bartering them.
Nine people were arrested on charges of violating the three federal laws in South Dakota and Florida, and authorities said 37 in all were charged yesterday.
Officials predicted that as many as 50 will be arrested in those states and in California, Utah, Oklahoma, Montana, Colorado and North Dakota. The laws carry penalties of up to two years in jail and $20,000 fines.
Among those arrested was Fred Smith, past president of Florida's Seminole Indian tribal corporation, charged with dealing in the feathers of a large tropical bird known as an anhinga.
The bald eagle was the only endangered species involved in the probe. In Oklahoma, authorities said they expect to charge several people with illegal sales of the state bird, the scissor-tail flycatcher, whose two tail feathers are used in Indian ceremonial objects. Undercover agents also bought hawks, songbirds and owls, officials said.