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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Western District of Wisconsin

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Oneida County Men Charged With Illegal Possession Of Bald Eagles

Madison, Wis. - 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 today, charging Alvin C. Sowinski, 65, and his son Paul A. Sowinski, 46, both of the Town of Sugar Camp, Wis., with the illegal possession of American bald eagles.  The defendants each face a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. 

The charges stem from the use of a pesticide, Carbofuran, to kill wildlife on the Sowinski property in Sugar Camp.  The use of the chemical killed several species of animals between May 2007 and March 2010, including at least two American bald eagles. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act provides criminal penalties for the possession or taking of the American bald eagle. 

According to the plea agreements filed today, the sentencing judge will determine the amount of any prison time or fine to be imposed upon the defendants, with both the defendants and the government permitted to argue for an appropriate sentence.  The defendants and the government agreed, however, that the defendants will pay $100,000 in restitution and lose all rights and privileges to hunt, fish and trap for a period of not less than five years.  Under the plea agreement, the government specifically reserved the right to request that the Court impose a greater period of revocation of the hunting, fishing and trapping 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 live in separate residences in the Town of Sugar Camp.  Their family owns approximately 8,000 acres in Oneida County, with about 4,000 acres consisting of an active farming operation.

In May 2007, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Warden initiated an investigation into potential poisoning of animals on property owned by Sowinski Real Estate LLC.  This property is approximately four miles west of Alvin's homestead property.  The DNR warden found dead a bald eagle, a crow, a gray squirrel, and a bobcat, within 100 yards of a deer carcass that the warden suspected to contain a poisonous substance.  The deer carcass was tested by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Forensic Laboratory and found to contain the insecticide Carbofuran.  The bald eagle, crow, gray squirrel, and bobcat were also tested by the lab and lab personnel concluded that the animals died as a result of ingesting Carbofuran.

In the winter of 2010 and continuing through April 13, 2010, Alvin Sowinski  placed several bait sites on the Sowinski property near his homestead for the purpose of killing predators, such as fishers, bobcats, coyotes, and gray timber wolves.  Law enforcement personnel found at least nine bait sites on the Sowinski property during this time period.  These bait sites contained the remains of beavers and white-tailed deer, and processed meats.  One of the bait sites found by law enforcement contained antifreeze in a coffee container. 

Law enforcement located the following animals which died on or near these bait sites on the Sowinski property: 18 crows and ravens, three chickadees, one nuthatch, one turkey vulture, one blue jay, five coyotes, one bobcat, one skunk, one red squirrel, and three ermine.  The bait at certain of these sites was analyzed by the USFWS Laboratory Forensic Lab and found to contain the insecticide Carbofuran.  The Lab also examined some of the dead wildlife (22 animals), and lab personnel concluded they died as a result of ingesting Carbofuran, except for one of the chickadees, the blue jay, and the ermine.  In addition, law enforcement found the remains of two bald eagles and one rough-legged hawk in another area of the property which they believed to be located near a bait site from the previous winter (2009), and in the vicinity of a deer stand used by Paul Sowinski.  However, the USFWS lab was unable to confirm the presence of Carbofuran or any other poison in the two eagles, rough legged hawk, or suspected bait site.

Paul Sowinski was aware that his father was placing poison bait sites on the Sowinski property in 2010, but was not aware what chemical Alvin was using to mix with the bait material.  In 2009, Paul Sowinski found two dead eagles near his deer stand and threw them in the woods.  Two eagles were later recovered by law enforcement.  He also admitted that he found another bald eagle, which had been placed on the property by law enforcement as part of its investigation, and burned it in a brush pile because he did not want authorities to find it, and he did not want anyone to get into trouble.

On May 12, 2010, federal search warrants were executed by law enforcement from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Oneida County Sheriff’s Department, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on seven different locations on the Sowinski property in Sugar Camp, looking for evidence of wildlife poisoning on the property.  Law enforcement located the following additional animals that died on or near bait sites on the Sowinski property: one bald eagle, 21 crows and ravens, four coyotes, one hawk, two songbirds, one weasel and two small unidentified mammals.  Several other dead animals were found in another area, but where bait materials were not in the immediate vicinity: two bald eagles, a black bear, two ravens, and a coyote.  The animals seized during execution of the search warrants were not tested in the lab, but the circumstances surrounding their deaths and location is similar to those animals found by law enforcement earlier in 2010 which tested positive for Carbofuran poisoning.

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.”

“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.

Updated July 14, 2015