Ring peddled polar bear hides, walrus tusks

By Mary Pemberton

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, July 24 2011 1:10 p.m. MDT

In this 2011 photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, walrus tusks and polar bear hides are seen that are among the illegally trafficked wildlife products that have been seized by the service in Alaska. Eskimo hunters living on an island in the Bering Sea were offered not only cash but firearms, ammunition, cigarettes, marijuana and snow machines for walrus ivory tusks and polar bear hides that then were illegally sold. The case reads like something out of American history books but authorities say it is an example of a more modern problem: the illegal trafficking in protected marine mammals.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Eskimo hunters on an island in the Bering Sea were offered not only cash but firearms, ammunition, marijuana, cigarettes and snow machines for walrus ivory tusks and polar bear hides that were illegally sold, according to federal prosecutors.

When investigators totaled the take, the marine mammal peddling ring was responsible for the illegal sale and transport of approximately 230 pounds of walrus tusks valued at about $22,000 and two polar bear hides for $2,700, not to mention the tusks, skulls, teeth, jaw bones and other animal parts found in the home of the couple charged in the case. They also sold machine guns.

"This case demonstrates that there is significant volume of illegally taken wildlife parts being transferred in violation of federal law," said Kevin Feldis, chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Anchorage. "Unfortunately that world wildlife problem is an issue for Alaska."

Federal law allows Indian, Aleut or Eskimos who reside in coastal Alaska to hunt and kill walrus and polar bears without a permit for subsistence purposes. But, they can't turn around and sell the animal parts to non-Natives. They can make money by turning the parts into a Native handicraft to be sold.

In this case, the parts were sold to non-Natives in a "raw" or unaltered state.

Loretta Audrey Sternbach, a 52-year-old Eskimo with closely-cropped grey hair, pleaded guilty this week in U.S. District Court to violating several federal laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. The petite woman in prison garb with "prisoner" in large black letters on the back was asked by the judge if the facts of the case were true.

"Yes," Sternbach said.

Sternbach is the only Alaska Native of the three. Her two co-conspirators, Jesse Joseph LeBoeuf and Richard Blake Weshenfelder, have already acknowledged their guilt.

LeBoeuf reached a plea agreement calling for nine years in prison. Sternbach and Weshenfelder have no such agreements but are expected to get less time. Violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits the illegal sale of wildlife, can carry a $250,000 fine.

Sentencing for the three is expected in November.

Feldis said the Savoonga case was part of an ongoing investigation into the illegal trafficking in marine mammal parts in Alaska. Investigators have also uncovered illegal sales of sea otter pelts in southeast Alaska.

Sternbach stated that she conspired with the two men to make money from the illegal trade. LeBoeuf negotiated the sales and Weshenfelder marketed the items on the Internet, which then were sold to non-Natives in other states, including Colorado, according to court documents. Some of the items went to other countries.

Between July 2010 and March, Sternbach and LeBoeuf made at least four trips to Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island to connect with Eskimo hunters who had legally killed the animals. Island residents live a mostly subsistence lifestyle, relying on walrus, seal, fish and bowhead and gray whales for food.

During one visit, LeBoeuf offered to send marijuana in exchange for marine mammal parts, according to the case file. He packed a box to be shipped to Anchorage that contained various walrus parts, including a skull, oosik and meat.

When LeBoeuf traveled alone to Savoonga, he instructed the Eskimo hunters to indicate that the tusks were Sternbach's property, the indictment says. LeBoeuf also had some of the illegally purchased walrus tusks sent to his and Sternbach's home in Glennallen.

Sternbach attempted to conceal their crimes by writing and signing a letter to buyers indicating that the walrus tusks were a gift, she acknowledged. To make it appear legal, the letter included her Bureau of Indian Affairs number, the tusk tag number and the couple's home phone number.

Buyers were told to send checks or money orders, or to deposit payment for the hides and tusks into various bank accounts. When the couple's home was searched, 93 tusks were found, as well as teeth, skulls, oosiks, jaw bones, sea and whale parts, marijuana plants and five pieces of stolen artwork.

LeBoeuf and Sternbach also acknowledged selling two machine guns, one that was equipped with a silencer, from their home in Glennallen. When arrested, they were trying to sell a third.

LeBoeuf, who is a convicted felon and not allowed to possess guns, also admitted having 19 firearms in his possession. Some of the guns were stolen. He sold two to residents in Savoonga.

Steve Wells, Sternbach's lawyer, said if coastal Alaska Natives were allowed to legally sell marine mammal parts, the criminality of the activity would be removed. And, he said, that would encourage locals to take more of an ownership interest in protecting and conserving the marine mammals they are allowed to hunt.

West said it also would bring some money into villages that are struggling economically.

"You just got some people trying to make ends meet," Wells said. "Here is a great economic opportunity for the people in Savoonga and they can't do it because the government says you can't sell these things."

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