By DAN FROSCH
Published: May 4, 2012
Miles from downtown Denver, in a small warehouse on the city’s edge, Bernadette Atencio watched as two men methodically bundled piles of dead eagles into boxes, careful to include enough frozen gel packs so the remains would not thaw.
“This one’s going to Prescott, Ariz.,” Ms. Atencio said, nodding toward one bird tightly parceled in plastic. “That one’s going to Pendleton, Ore.”
Despite appearances, this was not some surreptitious animal-smuggling ring. It was a typical Wednesday at the National Eagle Repository, the only place where American Indians can legally obtain bald and golden eagles from the federal government for traditional ceremonies.
Through a series of federal acts dating to the 1940s, bald and golden eagles have been fiercely protected. It is illegal to hunt the birds and also to collect feathers or eagle parts without the proper permit.
And so, for more than 30 years, this United States Fish and Wildlife Service program has been shipping thousands of eagle carcasses and parts to American Indians, who view the animals as sacred.
But a growing backlog of applications, and a slew of recent court battles over when American Indians can lawfully obtain eagles on their own, has raised questions about whether the repository is sufficient.
Currently, tribal members seeking an immature golden eagle, the most coveted bird, must wait about four and a half years. Wait times for a bald eagle are two years. Despite the efforts by the Wildlife Service to ship animals as swiftly as possible, the waiting list has swelled to more than 6,000 applications.
“More and more of our young people are going back to our spiritual way of life, and we can’t do our ceremonies without the eagles,” said Lee Plenty Wolf, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe who lives in Fort Collins, Colo., and received a bald eagle on April 26 after waiting almost three years.
Federal law, however, forbids anyone without a specialized permit who finds a dead eagle or eagle feathers from taking them. Each week on average, the repository receives dozens of dead eagles or parts sent from across the country by state and federal wildlife officers. Some have died naturally; others were roadkill or electrocuted by power lines.
But with 4,500 requests coming in each year, the repository simply does not have enough eagles, said Ms. Atencio, who supervises the warehouse, in an old Army maintenance building.
“It’s a supply and demand issue, and we need more supply,” she said. “It’s a double-edged sword. To fill all the requests in a timely manner means we need more dead birds.”
Having to wait so long to use eagles in religious ceremonies has become a source of frustration for many tribes.
“Eagles are sacred to us, so of course we are interested in eagle protection,” said Melissa Holds the Enemy, a lawyer for the Crow tribe in Montana. “But there is a huge disconnect that is not being addressed. Protecting eagles and accommodating Indian religious freedoms do not need to conflict with one another.”
Driven by the delays, the Crow have been fashioning a plan to present to Fish and Wildlife officials that would allow tribal members with permits to keep dead eagles found on tribal land, Ms. Holds the Enemy said.
Daniel M. Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an e-mail that the agency was especially sensitive to American Indians’ religious needs and recently streamlined the application process to reduce wait times.
Mr. Ashe also cited a special program that has, in recent years, allowed five tribes to keep injured eagles that could not be released in the wild. The tribes are permitted to distribute naturally molted feathers for ceremonial use, but cannot kill the birds.
“We understand the importance of eagles to the religious beliefs of tribal members, and we are committed to doing everything we can, within the boundaries of federal law and our mandate to ensure healthy eagle populations in the wild, to improve tribes’ access to eagles for religious purposes,” he said.
Debate over the issue has also played out in courtrooms of late. In 2005, a Northern Arapaho man, Winslow Friday, was prosecuted for killing a bald eagle on tribal land. Mr. Friday’s lawyer, John Carlson, argued that the repository’s wait time was intolerably long and that when birds were sent to tribe members, they were often too badly burned or decomposed for use.
A federal judge in Wyoming, William F. Downes, dismissed the charge against Mr. Friday. But the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, overturned the ruling. Mr. Friday eventually pleaded guilty in tribal court and paid a $2,500 fine.
In March, the Fish and Wildlife Service granted the Northern Arapaho a permit to “take,” or kill, two bald eagles for religious purposes. The tribe, which initially applied for the permit more than two years ago, had filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 saying the process was taking too long. Applications for such permits are rare.
On March 30, a lawyer for the Northern Arapaho filed an amended complaint in federal court in Cheyenne, Wyo., calling the permit “a sham” because it forced the tribe to obtain the eagles off its reservation, which left tribal members subject to prosecution under state law.
According to Jerome Ford, assistant director of the Wildlife Service’s migratory bird program, a joint tribal statute between the Eastern Shoshone tribe and the Northern Arapaho, who share the Wind River Reservation, prohibits the taking of eagles on the actual reservation.
The permit was “the only option that did not create a conflict” between the two tribes, he said.
As that case continues, Fish and Wildlife officials planned to meet this summer with tribal governments to figure out ways to speed the process for receiving eagle feathers.
“This is an issue across all tribal nations,” said Myron Pourier, who sits on the executive board for the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota, which hopes to build its own eagle repository. “All of them are going through the same federal red tape when they shouldn’t be. Especially when this is a part of our way of life.”