Two men accused in a probe of illegal eagle and migratory bird trafficking admitted charges Friday in U.S. District Court in Billings.
William Esley Hugs Jr., 23, of Crow Agency, pleaded guilty to all five felony counts against him in an indictment. There was no plea agreement.
Hugs’ uncle, Harvey Allen Hugs, 48, of Hardin, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor as part of a plea agreement in which a felony charge was dismissed.
The two men were charged along with at least four others in an investigation called Operation Rolling Thunder, which ran from 2008 until February 2011.
Appearing before Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull, William Hugs Jr. admitted selling eagle and hawk parts and eagle carcasses to an informant for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service beginning in December 2010.
William Hugs Jr. pleaded guilty to conspiracy to traffic in eagles and migratory birds, two counts of unlawfully trafficking in migratory birds and two counts of unlawfully trafficking in eagles.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark S. Smith said the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks got a tip in November 2010 that a group of people in the Hardin area were killing and selling eagles. Investigators learned that eagle feathers and parts could be bought at the Hugs ranch, about five miles south of Hardin, he said.
The informant went to the Hugs ranch multiple times and bought bird parts and carcasses in a series of transactions. Smith said the informant spent $3,450 buying more than 28 hawk and eagle feathers, wings, tails, bones and whole carcasses.
Hugs Jr. admitted selling golden eagle wings and a carcass, a bald eagle carcass, multiple wings and a tail and hawk tails to the informant. He sold the bald eagle carcass to the informant for $300. Hugs also admitted offering to sell the tail of a hawk he had shot.
Hugs Jr. faces a maximum of five years in prison and a possible $250,000 fine on the conspiracy count. Cebull set sentencing for April 26. Hugs Jr. remains in custody.
Hugs’ uncle, Harvey Hugs, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of aiding and abetting eagle trafficking.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby sentenced Harvey Hugs to six months in jail and one year of probation. He has served five months in custody. She also dismissed a felony count.
Smith said Harvey Hugs facilitated the informant’s dealings with his brother, William Esley Hugs Sr. of Crow Agency.
The informant went to the Hugs ranch and began buying multiple eagle feathers, tails and wings from both William Hugs Sr. and his son, William Hugs Jr., the prosecutor said.
Hugs Sr. and another co-defendant, Marc J. Little Light, of Hardin, have pleaded not guilty to charges. Several others have been charged separately in the investigation.