By Yereth Rosen
Three Alaskans have been indicted on charges of trafficking in hundreds of pounds of walrus tusks taken from a remote Eskimo village in exchange for such items as cash, guns and marijuana, prosecutors said on Thursday.
The case against the three individuals, which also includes accusations of illegal sales of walrus bones and polar bear hides, marks Alaska's biggest case of illegal trafficking in wildlife contraband in years, said Yvonne Lamoureux, an assistant U.S. attorney.
Jesse Leboeuf and Loretta Sternbach, both of Glennallen, Alaska, and Richard Weshenfelder of Anchorage pleaded not guilty on Thursday. They were arrested earlier this week.
The indictment, unsealed on Wednesday, said they began trading last summer for the animal parts from Savoonga, an impoverished Yupik Eskimo village on a remote Bering Strait island.
In addition to offering cash, firearms, ammunition and drugs in exchange for the ivory and hides, the defendants also traded away snowmobiles, prosecutors said. The three also are accused of conspiring to sell the ivory and animal parts over the Internet.
Federal laws forbid commercial trafficking in raw animal parts from protected species, such as Pacific walruses and polar bears. Polar bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and the Pacific walrus is a candidate for listing. Both animals are considered imperiled by the decline of Arctic sea ice.
Leboeuf was charged with seven counts of trafficking in animal parts and three gun violations and he faces a maximum of 65 years in prison if convicted. Sternbach is charged with seven counts of trafficking in animal parts and two firearms offenses and faces up to 55 years in prison. More....