Mention of black market goods might spark images of abortion pills, counterfeit Rolodex watches and babies.
But Dee Benson, U.S. attorney for Utah, says there's a growing illegal market for wildlife - both dead and alive. More game animals, captured alive and transported across state lines, are being killed and sold for food, body parts and trophy mounts.A mounted bighorn sheep head, the kind you might find on the wall of some mountain cabin or in a Western-theme restaurant, might garner up to $50,000 on the black market. A stuffed King Eider sea duck carries a value equivalent to a pickup truck.
At a press conference Friday with his office decorated with stuffed animals and birds as props, Benson announced that three Utah men have been charged with illegally killing and selling wild game.
Additional charges are being filed by the U.S. attorney's office in California, thanks to a state and federal undercover effort, "Operation Wasatch," which stretched from Alaska, through Idaho, Utah, California and to Nebraska.
The undercover investigation, conducted in Utah by the Division of Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, started in 1987, and Benson said from 50 to 100 individuals may face state or federal charges.The three Utah indictments were handed up by a grand jury, while seven search warrants and two car searches were carried out on Thursday and Friday, Benson said.
David Paul Butts, 29, Ogden; Michael Tracy Jacobsen, 23, Springville; and Troy W. Garner, 20, Highland, made their first appearances Friday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Ronald Boyce. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Vincent said the men were taxidermists.
Butts was charged with nine counts of violating wildlife laws, including selling migratory birds, a black bear, a pronghorn antelope and a sandhill crane.
If convicted, he could face a maximum of 27 years in prison.
In another indictment, Jacobsen was charged with three counts of selling migratory birds, while Garner faces one count of bartering migratory birds and another of being an accomplice to an illegal sale.
Butts and Jacobsen were released on $10,000 signature bonds and scheduled for arraignment Monday, while Garner was detained to a community treatment center. Vincent said Garner received phone calls while the search warrant was being served, and his release might endanger the safety of undercover officers.
Because black market poaching has become so lucrative, officials are seeing connections between illegal game sales and drugs. "Wildlife is becoming very similar to drug activity," said Neill S. Hartman, supervisory special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.
Hartman said there is no legal market for sales of wild birds and waterfowl. He hopes Friday's arrests will send a message to those who hunt illegally and, by violating protective laws, threaten to destroy the natural diversity of the environment. "I believe we have to make a strong stand."