Charges filed in Wisconsin wildlife poisoning investigation

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John W. Vaudreuil, United States Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, announced the filing of an information and plea agreements in U.S. District Court in Madison yesterday, charging Alvin C. Sowinski, 65, and Paul A. Sowinski, 46, both of Sugar Camp, Oneida County, Wisconsin, with illegal possession of bald eagles. The men each face a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

The charges are the result of a cooperative Federal and State investigation of the use of the highly regulated pesticide Carbofuran to kill as many as six eagles and other wildlife (more than 70 animals total) on the Sowinski property in Oneida County between 2007 and 2010. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, 16 U.S.C. § 668, prohibits the possession or taking of eagles and provides criminal penalties for such acts.

While the sentencing judge will determine the amount of any prison time or fines for the defendants, the plea agreement calls for the pair to pay $100,000 in restitution and lose all rights and privileges to hunt, fish and trap for at least 5 years. Under that agreement, prosecutors reserved the right to seek a longer revocation of these privileges. U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker scheduled the guilty plea hearings for May 8, 2014, at 1:00 p.m. for Alvin Sowinski and 1:30 p.m. for Paul Sowinski.

Alvin and Paul Sowinski, father and son, live in Oneida County, where the family owns some 8,000 acres, which include farm fields as well as prime habitat for both wildlife and hunting. The elder Sowinski baited multiple sites on the property with wildlife carcasses or processed meats treated with Carbofuran, hoping to attract and kill bobcats, coyotes, wolves, fishers and other species that prey on the deer and game birds that he and his son routinely hunted on their land.

During the first four months of 2010, Federal and State officers documented Sowinski’s placement of poison-laced bait at least nine sites and the nearby deaths of 24 federally protected migratory birds and other species. Investigators also found the remains of two bald eagles and a rough-legged hawk on another part of the property near the location of a deer stand used the previous winter by Paul Sowinski. Tests conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Forensics laboratory confirmed that many of the animals recovered by investigators had died from ingesting Carbofuran.

The execution of Federal search warrants in May 2010 yielded more evidence of wildlife poisoning. Carcasses recovered from seven different sites on the Sowinski property included those of three additional bald eagles.

Paul Sowinski admitted knowing that his father was setting out poisoned bait but was not aware of the chemical being used. He told investigators that he had found and discarded the two eagles that were recovered near his deer stand in 2010 and acknowledged that he destroyed a third carcass to conceal it from authorities.

Law enforcement officers first became aware of potential poisoning of wildlife on the Sowinski property in the spring of 2007 when a State warden recovered a dead eagle and three other animals within 100 yards of a deer carcass. Both the wildlife and deer tested positive for Carbofuran.

United States Attorney Vaudreuil stated, “Wisconsin is a special place to live, in large part because of our clean environment and our wildlife.  The criminal actions of these two defendants--poisoning the land, killing bald eagles and numerous other animals and birds--simply for their own selfish reasons, attack the very core of what this state stands for.  Investigating and prosecuting this type of conduct is, and will always be, a high priority for this office and the U.S. Department of Justice.”

“Indiscriminately targeting wildlife predators with poison to improve hunting opportunities is not only unethical, it is illegal. Such use of systemic poisons kills non-targeted species, such as our national symbol, and causes environmental contamination,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent in Charge Gregory Jackson.

“We are pleased with the outcome of this case and with the strong investigative effort from our partners in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency,” continued Jackson.

“The defendants had in their possession a bald eagle which was killed by a pesticide that one of the defendants admits using improperly,” said Randall K. Ashe, Special Agent in Charge of EPA’s criminal enforcement program in Wisconsin.  “Product labels are designed to ensure the safe use and application of pesticides.  Using pesticides for purposes other than their registered use is illegal and puts people, animals and the environment at risk of exposure.  Today’s action shows that individuals who misuse these products and kill protected wildlife will be prosecuted.”

“This is a disturbing case involving the reckless poisoning of wild birds and animals,” said Todd Schaller, chief DNR warden. “To place poisoned baits out into the environment, lethally threatening any and all wildlife in the area, is not only illegal it is unconscionable and not something the citizens of this state will tolerate.”

“Wildlife poisoning cases are one of the most egregious violations we come across and are among the most difficult criminal natural resource investigations to conduct,” said Brian Ezman, DNR investigative unit supervisor. “Collecting evidence, conducting surveillance and working around highly toxic insecticides – which were being used indiscriminately – required a heightened sense awareness to protect the safety of investigators, the public and our wildlife and natural resources.”

“This investigation was successful as a result of the teamwork and positive working relationships shared between several law enforcement agencies (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Oneida County Sheriff’s Department),” said Brian Ezman, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Investigative Unit Supervisor.

The charges against Paul and Alvin Sowinski are the result of a joint investigation conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oneida County Sheriff’s Department, and Environmental Protection Agency.  The prosecution of this case has been assigned to Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter M. Jarosz.

You are advised that a charge is merely an accusation and that a defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.

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