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article imageTwo plead guilty to trafficking in walrus tusks, polar bear hides

By Kim I. Hartman     Jul 17, 2011 in Crime
Savoonga - Two Alaskans have pleaded guilty to trading in walrus tusks and polar bear hides in the largest wildlife trafficking case in over two decades. A third person involved in the ring is expected to plead guilty this week.
The Anchorage Daily News reports the two men, along with a third defendant, were involved in a ring that traded goods, which included cigarettes, guns and snowmobiles, with Native Alaskans in exchange for the federally protected walrus ivory tusks and the hides of the polar bear.
Commercial walrus harvesting is prohibited in Alaska, although Indigenous Alaskan tribes, including the Chukchi, Yupik and Inuit peoples, are permitted to hunt the walruses but are not permitted to sell the ivory.
The Alaskan natives use the meat of the walrus for food in the winter as part of their cultural diet. The flippers are buried in the snow and allowed to ferment through the winter. They are then eaten as a delicacy in the the spring, a practice that has been carried on for hundreds of years. The Indigenous people use the bones and tusks to make tools and carve them into native crafts. The Alaskan people utilize all the parts of the walrus including the guts and intestines. The fat is used to make oil which becomes a source of light and heat, the hides are used for coverings, according to Wikipedia.
The defendants, Alaska residents Jesse James LeBoeuf, 47, Loretta Audrey Sternbach, 52, and Richard Blake Weshenfelder, 50, advertised and sold the the walrus tusks online, according to prosecutors.
According to document filed in court after the couple's April 26 arrest, federal agents found about 20 guns -- including an illegal machine gun -- 30 marijuana plants and some coca plants at their Glennallen home. They were charged with buying more than 500 pounds of walrus ivory and two polar bear hides during trips to Savoonga in 2010 and 2011 and illegally selling the animal parts.
The defendants are facing between five and nine years in prison along with fines of up to $250,000. They will be sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess in November.
Prosecutors said the investigation is ongoing and charges are being considered against the Indigenous tribe members who sold the walrus tusks and polar bear hides to the defendants.
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