ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - 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.
Lamoureux described them as a dangerous couple who shared a house full of guns, marijuana, coca plants and other contraband.
Weshenfelder, who prosecutors say remained in Anchorage and helped arrange sales, is charged with conspiracy to traffic in animal parts and faces a maximum sentence of five years.
The arrests capped a nine-month investigation in which authorities seized 1,000 pounds of raw ivory -- believed to have come from at least 100 walruses -- and other contraband such as whale baleen and teeth and polar bear hides.
In a similar case in Oregon, state police there said on Thursday they had arrested six men and three women charged with racketeering in connection with an alleged wildlife poaching operation.
The nine defendants in that case are accused of illegally killing some 300 deer since 2006 in central Oregon. State police said they seized 1,600 pounds of illegally processed game meat, plus 18 rifles and 108 sets of antlers.
Additional reporting by Dan Cook in Portland; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman