Welcome to the niche underworld of illegal bird trafficking: garbage bags full of eagle bits; talons laid out like watches on a kitchen floor; bloody smuggling routes said to stretch from hunting grounds in Wyoming to black markets in Los Angeles or much farther.
Fifteen people face federal charges after a two-year undercover investigation of what U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler described at a news conference in South Dakota as a multistate “chop shop for eagles.”
At the top of the list of suspects is Troy Fairbanks, the 54-year-old operator of a Native American dance company who authorities say ran a side business as the self-styled “best feather man in the Midwest.”
As the feds began their sting operation in 2014, a government informant made contact with Fairbanks at a campground near his home in Rapid City, S.D., according to a federal indictment. They allegedly talked eagle, and the informant left with Fairbanks’s business card.
In visits to Fairbanks’s home over the next year, according to the indictment, the informant bought thousands of dollars worth of eagle parts, once trading black bear claws and $1,000 cash for a feathered headdress styled after the outfits of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. Fairbanks and his two sons — Troy Young Fairbanks, 24, and Majestic Fairbanks, 22 — allegedly used code words, such as “otter” for an eagle tail or “buffalo skull,” which the informant used to purchase a golden eagle head in the spring of 2015, according to the indictment.
All three men are charged with conspiracy to traffic wildlife. The elder Fairbanks is also charged with violating various federal acts that offer protections to birds including bald eagles. Troy Fairbanks could not be reached for comment, and no lawyers were listed in court records.
He is accused of organizing a plot to sell mass quantities of eagle parts to the informant for resale in Germany, according to the government. The alleged “feather king” claimed to have 19 buyers lined up in Los Angeles, the indictment said, and the ability to procure 60 dead eagles by the winter.
Authorities said at the news conference in South Dakota on Monday that an intact eagle carcass could fetch upward of $1,000 on the black market.
According to an indictment charging several other suspects in the scheme, an informant once went to a convenience store in Pine Ridge, S.D., and arranged to buy a discounted carcass for $800 because it was missing wing bones. There was also an offer of an illegal eagle hunting trip in Wyoming at one point, according to the charges. And one seller claimed to have feathers from “a Philippine serpent eagle, woodpeckers, Malaysian hornbills, water birds, and a caracara,” according to the indictment. Feathers mailed to an informant in December 2015 “were wrapped as Christmas presents.”
While authorities say more criminal charges will likely follow the indictments — filed over the past several weeks in federal court in South Dakota — all 15 suspects are accused of violating acts that protect eagles and migratory birds.
Once on the brink of extinction because of hunting and habitat destruction, bald eagles have made such a stunning comeback in the United States that the revered national symbols were removed from the endangered species list in 2007. But golden and bald eagles are still protected species.
A federal repository outside Denver is the only legal place for Native Americans to procure eagle feathers, wings and carcasses for religious purposes, with waiting periods of up to five years. Believing the animals to link the human and spiritual realms, thousands of Native Americans were on a government waiting list for parts in 2012, when The Washington Post wrote about an ill-fated bald eagle’s journey from a Washington area Metro track to the repository.
But not everyone wants to go through the red tape. In 2015, The Post wrote about how federal agents had walked into a powwow in Texas and confiscated eagle feathers from a Native American pastor, putting his congregation under fear of criminal prosecution.
Nothing in the new indictments for “Project Dakota Flyer” suggests the smuggled bird parts were intended for sacred purposes. On the contrary, officials in charge of the undercover operation described a collectors’ market in which hundreds of eagles — as well as hawks, owls and other protected birds — were killed, dismembered and transported in blood-covered vehicles with “no cultural sensitivity … no spirituality,” as Seiler described it at the news conference.
“These items were treated like garbage,” the U.S. attorney said. “They were in Walmart bags. They were in garbage bags. They were spread out all over the house.”
The Fairbanks men, along with the 12 other people charged in the investigation, are scheduled to appear in federal courts in Rapid City and Pierre, S.D., next week, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.