Friday, 29 July 2011

Illegal Animal Trade: Eskimo Hunters Plead Guilty

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. News

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