Alaska News

UAF named its bird lab after this man. Now he’s guilty of bird smuggling.

A renowned bird collector whose name was adopted by the University of Alaska for its ornithology lab in Fairbanks pleaded guilty in federal court last week to smuggling bird carcasses into the United States.

Heinrich "Henry" Springer, a longtime research associate with the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, helped smuggle the bird specimens into the country for his own collection and for a Florida friend between May 2010 and October 2014, according to court documents filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office in U.S. District Court in Gainesville, Florida.

Springer, now 80 years old, declined to comment when reached by phone Tuesday. His attorney did not respond to an email and phone message Tuesday seeking comment.

Springer is a former member of the Alaska House, representing Nome as a Democrat from 1987 to 1988. He also once served as the executive director of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority and as chairman of the Alaska Board of Game.

A University of Alaska announcement about the ornithology lab dedication in 2008 detailed Springer's employment history and noted that his "lifelong passion, however, was the scientific study of birds."

According to court documents filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office, Springer smuggled into the country protected and endangered birds that his friend in Florida, taxidermist Tony Gilyard, had unlawfully acquired from foreign sellers and traders. In some cases, Gilyard had the bird carcasses shipped to Springer's family in Germany, who then shipped the birds to Anchorage. Gilyard owned a taxidermy shop in Williston, Florida.

To acquire the birds in Alaska, Springer used several illegal methods, said court documents filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office. Those methods included misusing a university museum permit to import the protected birds and then shipping the specimens to Gilyard. The permit was supposed to be used to import birds from other institutions as educational or scientific specimens for the Fairbanks museum. In other cases, Springer concealed the importing of the birds by failing to notify the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the documents said.

Springer also conspired to smuggle birds into the United States for his own collection in Anchorage of some 5,000 stuffed birds, the documents said. In 2011, he and Gilyard traveled to Peru to hunt birds with a guide. They paid the guide to kill and collect birds for them. The two men did not acquire the necessary permit to bring the carcasses back to the United States, the documents said.

The court documents described Springer as a "skilled taxidermist."

Marmian Grimes, a spokeswoman for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife alerted the university about its undercover investigation into Springer's activities in October 2014. Grimes said Springer's name was removed from the UA Museum permit soon after, though the lab still carries his name.

Grimes said Springer's collaboration with the university museum dated back to the 1950s. He was not an employee of the museum, she said, but served as a longtime collaborator with staff from the museum's ornithology department, donating his time as well as donating bird specimens.

Grimes said U.S. Fish and Wildlife worked with the museum to ensure its specimens were legally obtained. Grimes said no items were removed from the existing collections.

"Those are details of the investigation that I'm not privy to," she said.

Grimes said she had no indication the university was under investigation. It had been cooperating with federal authorities throughout the Springer investigation, she said.

In the 2008 university news release about the ornithology lab dedication, museum bird curator Kevin Winker called Springer "a classic 19th-century naturalist" and said he considered Springer an "expert on international permitting."

According to federal court records, Springer pleaded guilty to conspiring to smuggle endangered and protected bird species, to knowingly importing wildlife taken in violation of foreign law and to concealing illegally imported merchandise. A judge accepted Springer's guilty plea last week.

The charges together carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and more than $500,000 in fines, though defendants rarely get the maximum sentence in federal court. Springer's sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 28.

Gilyard pleaded guilty to five charges in February 2016. He was credited for his time served and fined $20,000, the Ocala StarBanner in Florida reported.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.