Federal authorities have unveiled their investigation of an international smuggling ring that trafficked at least $1.5 million worth of narwhal tusks, including 19 shipped to Alaska, where the investigation started.
Two Tennessee men, Jay Conrad and Eddie Dunn, have pleaded guilty to trading in illegal animal parts in a conspiracy that stretched across several states and two countries, federal prosecutors revealed this week. Conrad and Dunn admitted to buying narwhal tusks from two Canadians who sneaked the tusks into the United States. Then Conrad and Dunn sold the tusks to various buyers, including, in Dunn's case, people in Alaska, according to court documents.
Federal agents in Alaska were the first to catch on to the scheme, a prosecutor said.
The narwhal is a protected species of whale, characterized by a long tusk protruding from its jaw, that lives in the Arctic waters of Canada and Greenland. Only Natives are allowed to harvest narwhals, and Canadians can only sell the tusks to other Canadians with a special permit. Selling the tusks to Americans has been prohibited under the Marine Mammal Protection Act since 1972.
In a written statement, the U.S. Attorney's Office said Conrad and Dunn arranged to have their Canadian connection bring the tusks into the U.S. starting in about 2003.
It worked like this, according to the indictment in Conrad's case, filed in Maine:
The Canadians, whose names are redacted in the indictment, apparently bought the tusks legally in northern Canada. They modified a vehicle and built a trailer with a false bottom to carry the tusks, then drove from New Brunswick, Canada to a FedEx shipping facility in Bangor, Maine, and mailed the tusks to Conrad and others.
Dunn was one of the middlemen, purchasing a total of 135 tusks for more than $126,000 in multiple shipments to him in Tennessee from March 2003 to January 2009, according to the plea agreement in his case, which was filed in Alaska. Dunn resold the tusks to others, including 19 tusks to people in Alaska, the plea agreement says. The Alaska sales netted Dunn more than $182,000, according to the plea agreement.
Dunn made more than $1.1 million total selling tusks, the U.S. Attorney's Office statement says. Conrad's take was somewhere between $400,000 and $1 million, the statement says.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents based in Alaska discovered the narwhal tusk smuggling operation through their investigation of another wildlife parts seller in the Lower 48 who was also selling to Alaskans, among others, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Skrocki, an Anchorage-based federal prosecutor.
"And then that information was coordinated with investigators on the East Coast and Canada," Skrocki said. "A significant part of the investigation started here."
Several of Dunn's buyers were also contacted in Alaska, said Skrocki, who refused to say whether they cooperated with investigators. The investigation was dubbed "Operation Nanook," the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
"There is a market for virtually any animal part of this type, for any animal on the planet," Skrocki said. "As soon as you commercialize something to this extent, where you have buyers willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars, it makes the tusk more coveted, limits the number you can get, and just drives up the price and drives up the demand, which results in killing more animals just for the part or the tusk."
Canadian citizen Gregory Logan, the original supplier of the tusks, has been prosecuted in Canada will be also extradited to the U.S. to face charges, Skrocki said. Logan is a former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, known as the Mounties, according to news reports in Canada.
Dunn pleaded guilty in December 2011, but a judge did not unseal information in his case until Tuesday, when Conrad also pleaded guilty. Federal prosecutors in Alaska issued their statement Wednesday.
Dunn is set for sentencing in March and faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. As of Thursday, there was no sentencing date set for Conrad, who also pleaded guilty to a money laundering and smuggling charges.
By CASEY GROVE