Conservation officers in British Columbia say they have a prime suspect in the trafficking of bald eagle parts from the remains of 50 bald eagles found in the North Shore area in the last few months.
They are asking for the suspect to voluntarily come forward. They believe he has important information about the black market trade of the bird parts in North America.
"We are encouraging at this point in time that individual to come forward and meet with our officers to discuss this matter to bring it to a resolution," said Lance Sundquist, manager for the southwest region of the B.C. Conservation Officer Service with the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection.
The suspect is a First Nation man from the interior of the province who has been residing in the Vancouver area in the last few years. Sundquist said the Conservation Officer Service task force is still investigating the case and not ready to lay charges. He said the man in question is not a suspect in the actual eagle killings, but authorities believe he is responsible for collecting and distributing the eagle parts. To their knowledge, the individual does not have a criminal record for similar crimes and they will not release the name of the suspect unless they lay charges against him in the future, said Sundquist.
The authorities do have a good idea where the suspect is and are monitoring his location, said Sundquist, who also confirmed that there are other suspects in the case that are both First Nation and non-First Nation members.
"I'm just happy that they have somebody and they're focusing on this individual to turn themselves in," said Squamish First Nation Chief Bill Williams. "And whoever it is, I just hope that they start learning a bit more about the Creator and having some Elders talk to them to learn what they should've done other than going into this mad spree of killing."
The task force has received more than 90 tips from the public so far. Sundquist said the First Nations community has been very helpful by identifying issues and providing information. The province has been collaborating with the Canadian Wildlife Service, the RCMP and other agencies in Canada and the United States to solve this case.
In February, conservation officers had reported the discovery of about 40 eagle carcasses. By March 17, eight more skulls and six wings were uncovered. Most of the remains were found on Tsleil-Waututh First Nation territory, but Sundquist said the eagles came from all parts of the southwest region of the province. Conservation officers believe the incidences are related because of the similarities in the eagle remains' condition and the manner in which the carcasses were buried. The eagles' tail feathers, the most prized part of a bald eagle, and talons were taken and their remains buried. However, because of their advanced state of decomposition, conservation officers estimated that the eagle parts in the March find were about eight months older than the eagle carcasses in the February find.
Sundquist also confirmed reports that as many as 500 bald eagles are killed every year in the B.C.'s south coast for the illegal trade in eagle parts.
First Nations communities have been shocked and appalled at the killings of the sacred bird. Justin George, a Tsleil-Waututh band member, said the slaughter of the bald eagles has hurt his community.
"It's not a reflection of Tsleil-Waututh or Squamish beliefs and we're very strong traditionally in our cultures and this is by no means a representation of any of our cultures," said George.
"It's just a horror," said Williams. "We have always had a gathering of eagles in our traditional territory, anywhere from two to five thousand eagles every winter, and for somebody to go around and killing them for the feathers, I mean, it's just, they're sick whoever they are and they really need lots of help."
Rumors in the media suggest that the slaughter of the bald eagles are partof a large smuggling ring that traffics in the eagle parts from Canada into the United States where they are being sold for use on the powwow circuit. Time magazine reported that the wait for eagle feathers can be up to four years in the United States. Prize money at competition powwows can total hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Chief Bill Williams is not sure if this is the case. He pointed out that prize money is offered for the dancing, not the regalia.
Said Justin George, "if that is the case that they're going to the circuit or what have you, again you have to ask the question do the individuals purchasing them or trading for them, do they know how they've been taken?"
Purchasing an illegally obtained eagle feather can lead to charges.
"A person who is a buyer is also committing offences under various jurisdictions, legislations for that activity," said Sundquist, adding that B.C. First Nation members can get eagle feathers legitimately through the B.C. Conservation Office.
Michael O'Sullivan, the executive director of the Humane Society of Canada, told Raven's Eye that finding this many eagle remains in one location is rare, but that the black market trade in endangered animals is thriving. He quoted Interpol who estimates that the trade in endangered wildlife is among the top three illegally traded commodities, along with drugs and weapons, and that the trade in endangered wildlife alone is worth $12 billion (CAN)
"The trouble of course with most of Canada is that the bulk of our population is within 100 miles of the U.S. border, and so the areas that conservation officers have to patrol are really vast. And what most people don't know is that a lot of these activities take place on weekends and holidays and many conservation officers work Monday to Friday from nine to five," said O'Sullivan.
The going rate per eagle feather is $100 (US), he said. He did not believe that the eagle feathers were necessarily going to Aboriginal people eiher, stating that Asia has a huge market for wildlife.
"The upsurge for example in the demand for bear gull bladders has been huge in the last 10 years because there's been such a huge market in Asia that finally has a disposable income that can afford it. So it really is a question of supply and demand ... within wildlife traffickers and what their suppliers want, or the people consumers want, ... so no I wouldn't confine it to the Aboriginal market," said O'Sullivan.
Those found guilty could face up to a $50,000 fine per bird for poaching and $100,000 for trafficking under the province's Wildlife Act, and up to $150,000 and five years in jail for the same crimes under the federal Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act.
There is a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the guilty person or persons involved.
"You know, there was mixed emotions around that, putting a monetary tag on eagles and what have you, but for us it was more the information and just aiding any which way we could to find the guilty parties responsible," said George.
The Tsleil-Waututh First Nation is asking the conservation authorities for the remains of the birds after the investigation is over so that the community can properly bury them and conduct a public ceremony and feast to provide closure for both Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals affected by this tragedy, said George. The Squamish First Nation is also planning to have a public ceremony once authorities have laid charges to help with the healing.
The B.C. Conservation Officer Service asks anyone with information about this case or other related crimes to phone their call centre, 1-800-663-9453, at any time. All calls are free and confidential.