Where Eagles Die

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Last February, a woman walking her dog in the woods of North Vancouver stumbled upon a grotesque find: the mutilated carcasses of 26 bald eagles. The discovery set in motion a major investigation involving law enforcement and conservation officials in both Canada and the U.S. Now, TIME has learned, authorities have identified suspects in a poaching and smuggling ring that they say annually slaughters more than 500 of the protected animals on British Columbia's southwestern coast alone, with perhaps hundreds more killed each year elsewhere in the province. Officials are expected to make a formal announcement of their progress in the case early next week.

Killing eagles is illegal in Canada and the U.S. In addition, it's against the law for Americans to possess bald-eagle parts unless they are registered tribal members with special government permits. But with feathers and talons a major feature in traditional aboriginal dance regalia—which is popular on a competitive circuit that offers rich prizes for the best outfits—there's a hot black market for eagle parts in the U.S.

The magnificent birds, with their eight-foot wingspan, striking white heads and piercing yellow eyes, are recognized worldwide as an American national emblem. But in the mid-1990s they were nearly wiped out in the lower 48 American states by chemical pesticides like DDT. While many U.S. populations have recovered, the majority of the world's 100,000 bald eagles still live in Alaska and B.C., says Canadian biologist Richard Cannings. And while the B.C. eagle population is thriving, large-scale poaching in the province threatens American bird populations, because eagles from throughout the western U.S. migrate to B.C. each winter.

Smuggling of Canadian eagle parts to the U.S. is not new. An undercover operation cracked a U.S. ring in 1996. In another case, B.C. native Terry Antoine was sentenced in 2001 to two years for smuggling, selling and possessing eagle parts in the U.S. A federal jury in Seattle heard that Antoine, who was linked to the deaths of 173 eagles, had paid other B.C. residents $20 to $50 apiece to shoot the birds, which he then butchered and smuggled the parts across the border. There, he could sell wing feathers for as much as $150 and tail feathers for $250.

In the current investigation, the public has supplied more than 90 tips to conservation officers in both countries, officials say. So far about 50 dead birds with tail and wing feathers and talons removed have been found dumped in wooded areas near the traditional territory of B.C.'s Squamish and Burrard Indian bands, north of Vancouver. Band officials vehemently reject suggestions that aboriginals are involved in the slaughter. "We all share equally the horror and shock and frustration," Squamish Nation council chair Bill Williams says.

The poaching involves people of many different ethnicities, says Paul Chang, an agent with the Pacific Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But while he acknowledges that eagles have a historic place in aboriginal societies, Chang adds, "There are native Americans willing to trade in these parts." And with black-market prices for the parts remaining high, the temptation to join the illicit trade will continue.