A two-year undercover operation that led to indictments against 15 people for illegally trafficking eagles and other migratory birds offers a rare window into the black market for eagle carcasses, feathers, parts and handicrafts, including one alleged dealer who called himself the “best feather man in the Midwest”.

The indictments announced this week in Rapid City, South Dakota, portray an illicit trade carried out through face-to-face meetings, emails, texts and personal introductions. Eagle heads or wings can fetch hundreds of dollars, though sellers sometimes trade goods such as bear claws, buffalo horn caps or animal hides. The eagle parts are often used in Native American-style handicrafts.

“This was the illegal black market trafficking of eagles and eagle parts for profit,” South Dakota US Attorney Randy Seiler said. “It basically was a chop shop for eagles.”

Eagles are the national symbol of the United States and they’re widely considered sacred by Native Americans. Federal law limits possession of eagle feathers and other parts to enrolled members of federally recognised tribes who use them in religious practices. Bald eagles once nearly disappeared from most of the US but flourished under federal protections and came off the endangered list in 2007. Hunting them generally remains illegal.

Dan Rolince, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant special agent in charge of law enforcement for the region, said he expects the new cases to be among the largest his agency has handled as more charges are added. The cases involve as many as 250 eagles — most of them shot — but span more than 40 species of protected birds.

Rolince said buyers generally make purchases through online contacts or word of mouth, and that it’s difficult to determine the size of the market.

“It’s prevalent enough that we were able to make a case of this size in a relatively short period of time,” he said.

The defendants include people from Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

One case accuses a Rapid City family, Troy Fairbanks and his two adult sons, who are enrolled members of the Standing Rock and Lower Brule Sioux tribes. The father ran a Native American dance troupe called Buffalo Dreamers that performed at venues such as the Crazy Horse Memorial and Custer State Park in the Black Hills. But they also did a large trade in eagle parts and feathers, according to their indictment.

Fairbanks bragged to an unnamed “cooperating individual” that he was the “best feather man in the Midwest”, boasting that 19 people in the Los Angeles area wanted to buy from him, his indictment says. Fairbanks also claimed in May 2015 he could acquire 60 eagles by winter of that year.

By that point, with over a year of deals worth thousands of dollars under their belts, the “cooperating individual” had gained the trust of Fairbanks, who believed that person wasn’t a law enforcement officer “because you would have popped me by now”, his indictment says.

A man who answered a telephone number for Buffalo Dreamers hung up when a reporter identified himself and didn’t respond to a subsequent text message. Federal court records don’t list an attorney for the 54-year-old Fairbanks, who hasn’t returned emails sent to an address listed in the indictment.

Another group included Juan Mesteth, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux. An unnamed “confidential informant” made contact with Mesteth in the Pine Ridge area of South Dakota.

After Mesteth and the informant conducted a couple of deals, Mesteth introduced the informant to his connections in Wyoming who could supply whole carcasses and took them eagle hunting, according to the indictment.

Mesteth doesn’t have a listed phone number and court records don’t list an attorney who could comment on his behalf.

Authorities haven’t disclosed how much the defendants are thought to have profited.

There are legitimate ways to obtain eagle parts for religious purposes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates the National Eagle Repository to provide Native Americans with eagle carcasses, parts and feathers. Indians can also inherit them within their families or receive them as gifts.

Seiler, in the news conference announcing the indictments, accused the defendants of a lack of reverence for the birds.

“There was no cultural sensitivity. There was no spirituality,” Seiler said. “There was no tradition in the manner in which these defendants handled these birds.”

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