Montana man charged with violating Bald and Golden Eagle Protection, Migratory Bird Treaty Acts

Bald eagle populations have quadrupled since 2007, and are no longer endangered. Harvesting them or their feathers and eggs, however, still remains a federal crime.

Bald eagles fly around the Missouri River just south of the Ft. Randall Dam along the Randall Creek Recreation Area in 2017.
A bald eagle flies around the Missouri River just south of the Ft. Randall Dam along the Randall Creek Recreation Area in 2017.
Mitchell Republic file photo
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RAPID CITY — A Montana man is facing federal charges in South Dakota after allegedly receiving and selling bald eagles and other protected avian species in violation of multiple protection acts set into place by Congress.

Harvey Hugs, 59, of Hardin, Montana, pleaded not guilty July 18 to a federal indictment which alleged he violated sections of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, Lacey Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Dakota, on more than occasion between Aug. 20, 2020, and March 3, 2021, Hugs knowingly received, transported and sold bald and golden eagles. The indictment alleges Hugs should have known the birds were protected and that they were taken, possessed and sold in violation of federal regulations.

The charges further allege that Hugs, with disregard to the penalties of law, bartered and sold bald and golden eagles in their entirety as well as by individual parts.

Following the entry of a not guilty plea, Hugs was released on bond pending a trial date, which has been set for Sept. 20. If convicted, he could be sentenced to serve up to five years in federal custody, spend three additional years on supervised release, ordered to pay fines of up to $250,000, pay a special assessment of $100 to the Federal Crime Victims Fund and pay any restitution that may be ordered.


Despite past endangerment, American bald eagle population thriving

One of the largest birds of prey, bald eagles live across a wide stretch of land including most of the United States and Canada, as well as in northern Mexico. They’ve served as a longstanding symbol of patriotism since 1782, when they were designated America’s official bird.

In the mid-1900s, bald eagle populations across the United States began rapidly declining as a result of habitat destruction and degradation, illegal shooting and the contamination of its food source from a once-popular chemical insecticide called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT.

Realizing the plight of which the species faced, Congress took multifaceted measures over multiple decades to ensure bald eagle populations were protected from further decline, passing the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940, which prohibited killing, selling or possessing the species.

In 1963, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted only 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles remained in the country. It wasn’t for another four years that bald eagles would be listed as an endangered species in the United States by the Secretary of the Interior.

Bald eagles fly around the Missouri River just south of the Ft. Randall Damn along the Randall Creek Recreation Area on Monday. (Matt Gade / Republic)
A bald eagle flies around the Missouri River just south of the Ft. Randall Dam along the Randall Creek Recreation Area in 2017.
Mitchell Republic file photo

Following the ban of DDT in 1972 and wider recognition of humanity’s environmental impacts through the 1960s and 1970s, bald eagle populations began to recover. In 1997, the FWS announced bald eagles could be removed from the endangered species list, instead being labeled as threatened. In 2007, their status as a threatened species was removed, as well.

More recently, a 2021 update from the FWS announced that 2019 surveys found the species had made a remarkable recovery, quadrupling since 2007, with nearly 314,000 individual bald eagles.

“The recovery of the bald eagle is one of the most well-known conservation success stories of all time,” an FWS webpage on bald eagles reads. “The Service continues to work with our partners in state and federal agencies, tribes, nongovernment organizations and private landowners to ensure that our nation’s symbol flourishes.”

Despite the significant recovery for the species, they remain protected under what’s now known as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a similar act which regulates the taking and possession of certain migratory birds.


Though the full scale of how often these acts are violated is unknown, in a period from 2006 to 2016, FWS agents documented 90 violations of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021 and now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on local news in Sioux Falls. He also writes regional news spanning across the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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