Eagle Possession Questions Remain

Carol Berry
1/3/12

As federal agencies ponder the shortcomings of current eagle policies, tribal members wonder whether more Natives will be able to apply for feathers or parts, whether several-year delays at the National Eagle Repository will continue, and whether federal enforcement of eagle laws will change.

They may or may not receive the answers to those questions soon, but tribal input to a Department of Justice (DOJ) request for opinions on federal eagle practices was completed in early December and results will be analyzed and will become public at an unspecified future date, said a DOJ spokesman who declined to offer details about the “wide variety” of tribal responses.

A policy that may apply to both the DOJ and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) does not specify that eagle feather possession is restricted to members of federally recognized tribes, said Pat Durham, FWS Native Liaison, who noted the issue is “up in the air.”

The DOJ is considering whether to adopt the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) 1975 Morton Policy, which makes no explicit distinction between members of federally recognized tribes and others, merely referring throughout to “American Indians” and leaving open the possibility of an expanded definition of those eligible for feathers—and a greater number of applicants to the Repository, where, at minimum, 3.5 to 4.5-year delays for whole birds or certain feathers are not uncommon.

At present, members of federally recognized tribes can fill out paperwork and then apply to the Repository in metro Denver to receive bald or golden whole eagles, some or all of their feathers, or non-feather parts. The eagles the Repository receives usually have been killed accidentally and are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and other legislation from deliberate killing and from commercial trade in their bodies or parts.

At present, although eagle applications are filled only from federally recognized tribal members, there are many members of non-federally-recognized tribes and “people come down on both sides of whether to allow the wider tribal use or not,” said Steve Oberholtzer, a FWS special agent.

Existing delays in receiving eagles from the repository may not change significantly, said Durham, but practices are being streamlined: distributing feathers according to specific tribes’ practices, ending paperwork from applicants who have been approved before, and retrieving eagles from law enforcement evidence lockers. Currently, some 5,000 people are on the wait list.

The Policy concerning Indians’ cultural and religious use of feathers may be adopted by DOJ  with possible modifications to achieve inter-agency consistency. The Policy suggests, “the adoption of tribal ordinances designed to conserve federally protected birds.”

Other policies may change, as well, at least in part from joint tribal/FWS summits over the last two years that indicate Native leaders want greater input into federal policies governing the acquisition and possession of eagle feathers and an end to some FWS/DOJ federal enforcement practices felt to be oppressive—although, some tribal leaders noted, having to apply and wait for eagle feathers is, in itself, burdensome to religious and cultural practices.

Enforcement policies could change through an inter-agency program under the DOJ’s National Indian Country Training Initiative, which is seeking tribal input on the level of interest in promoting federal-tribal partnerships in wildlife laws and in building tribal capacity for enforcement of the laws, including “enforcement concerns related to use of eagle feathers” and “building and developing federal-tribal enforcement partnerships.”

In addition, both the DOJ and DOI are seeking tribal input on what training on tribal issues federal officers should have.

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