CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Wyoming tribe that received the nation's first federal permit allowing members to kill bald eagles for religious purposes renewed a legal challenge against the government Friday, calling the permit a "sham" because of restrictions against killing the birds on the tribe's reservation.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on March 9 granted the Northern Arapaho a permit allowing members to kill two eagles only outside the Wind River Indian Reservation. The Arapaho share their reservation with the Eastern Shoshone, who opposed the killing of eagles on the tribes' shared land.
Many American Indian leaders nationwide and those in the Northern Arapaho tribe initially hailed the permit decision as a victory for native sovereignty and native religions, which the federal government actively suppressed well into the last century.
However, in an amended lawsuit filed against the government Friday, the Arapaho Tribe takes issue with the permit provision that would require tribal members to kill eagles off the Wind River Reservation. The tribe states that the state of Wyoming prohibits killing eagles off the reservation while the federal permit itself requires adherence to state law.
"Any tribal member taking an eagle pursuant to the March 9, 2012, permit is subject to arrest and prosecution by the State of Wyoming, whether the take occurs on federal, state or other lands " tribal attorney Andy Baldwin and his associates wrote in the amended complaint.
A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver said the agency had no comment on the tribe's amended complaint because the issue is in litigation.
In its amended complaint, the Northern Arapaho tribe argues that federal government action barring tribal members from taking bald eagles for religious purposes violates their free exercise of religion.
Baldwin said the tribe discussed the permit concern with federal officials before filing the amended complaint but declined further comment. Attempts to reach tribal officials and Fish and Wildlife Service officials weren't immediately successful on Friday.
Bald eagles were removed from the federal list of threatened species in 2007. The birds remain protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Several Indian tribes have been allowed permits to kill golden eagles for religious purposes.
The Northern Arapaho first filed suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service last fall seeking to force the federal agency to grant an eagle permit. That court action came more than two years after the tribe first applied for a permit.
The tribe's lawsuit filed last fall followed the contentious federal prosecution of Winslow Friday, a young tribal member who killed a bald eagle without a permit in 2005 for use in his tribe's Sun Dance. Friday shot the eagle on his reservation.
Former U.S. District Judge William Downes dismissed the charge against Friday in 2006 saying it would have been pointless for him to apply for a permit. "Although the government professes respect and accommodation of the religious practices of Native Americans, its own actions show callous indifference to such practices," Downes wrote.
A federal appeals court reinstated the criminal charge against Friday. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case, he ultimately pleaded guilty in tribal court and was ordered to pay a fine.
In response to written questions from The Associated Press earlier this month, Matt Hogan, assistant regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, stated that Wyoming would not have to give its permission for Northern Arapaho members to kill eagles off the reservation.
"Permission for take of eagles would not be required by the State of Wyoming," Hogan stated in a March 14 email. "However, one of the permit conditions is consent from the landowner from where the bird will be taken."
In a status report to a federal judge presiding over the Northern Arapaho Tribe's lawsuit filed March 13, federal lawyers stated that the Eastern Shoshone Tribe had informed the Fish and Wildlife Service that they opposed the killing of eagles on the Wind River Reservation because they believed it was against the tribes' joint law and order code. Attempts to reach Eastern Shoshone officials for comment Friday weren't immediately successful.