CHEYENNE, Wyoming — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken the unusual step of issuing a permit allowing an American Indian tribe in Wyoming to kill two bald eagles for religious purposes.
The agency's decision comes after the Northern Arapaho Tribe filed a federal lawsuit last year contending the refusal to issue such permits violates tribal members' religious freedom. Permits allowing the killing of bald eagles are exceedingly rare, according to both tribal and legal experts on the matter.
"I've not heard of a take permit for a bald eagle," Steve Moore, lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colorado, said Tuesday. "I see it and NARF would see it as a legitimate expression of sovereignty by the tribe, and respect for that sovereignty by the Fish and Wildlife Service."
U.S. law prohibits the killing of bald eagles in almost all cases. The government keeps eagle feathers and body parts in a federal repository and tribal members can apply for them for use in religious ceremonies.
The bald eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened species in 2007, following its reclassification in 1995 from endangered to threatened. However, the species has remained protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 stated in a report that it had never issued a permit for the killing of bald eagles to that time. The report states the government had issued permits for the Hopi Tribe in Arizona to take golden eagles since the mid-1980s.
Diane Katzenberger, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver, said no one in the agency was available who could say immediately whether a permit allowing the killing of a live bald eagle had been issued since 2009.
It's been nearly three years since the Arapaho tribe filed an application for a permit to kill eagles, said Andy Baldwin, lawyer for the tribe, adding that he believed the Northern Arapaho would not have received the permit without going to court.
Gary Collins, a Northern Arapaho tribal member, serves as liaison between the tribe and the Wyoming state government. He said Tuesday the tribe in recent years has been increasingly exercising its sovereignty.
"I think that's the issue with the eagle case," Collins said.