CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday dropped its legal challenge to an American Indian tribe killing bald eagles for religious purposes on its Wyoming reservation — a move that could clear the way for issuing a federal permit in coming months.
The agency filed notice with a federal appeals court in Denver that it won't continue to appeal a lower court decision allowing the killing.
U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson in Cheyenne previously ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Northern Arapaho Tribe's religious freedoms by denying permission to kill bald eagles — the national bird — on the Wind River Indian Reservation for its annual Sun Dance.
The Northern Arapaho share the reservation with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, which opposes killing eagles. Johnson stated the First Amendment prohibited the federal government from burdening one American Indian tribe's exercise of religious rights to benefit another tribe.
In a prepared statement Friday, the Northern Arapaho Tribe said it expects to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service over the next couple of months to get a permit in place for the killing.
"We would like to thank our tribal elders who have taken the lead on this case to protect our most sacred ceremonies and the importance of the eagle to those ceremonies and our way of life," said Dean Goggles, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council.
Attempts to reach Fish and Wildlife Service officials for comment weren't immediately successful.
A Fish and Wildlife Service official said in 2012 that a permit it issued to the Northern Arapaho Tribe that year was the first in the nation allowing the killing of bald eagles for religious reasons. That permit allowed the Northern Arapaho to kill up to two eagles, but specified they couldn't be taken on the Wind River Reservation.
At that point, the agency had issued permits allowing individual American Indians and tribes, including the Hopi in Arizona, to kill golden eagles.
The bald eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened species in 2007. The birds remain protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Federal law prohibits non-Indians from killing or possessing any part of bald eagles.
The government keeps eagle feathers and body parts in a federal repository in Colorado that tribal members may seek to use in religious ceremonies.
Northern Arapaho Tribe members have said it's unacceptable for them to use an eagle carcass from the federal repository for the Sun Dance. They have emphasized that tribal religious leaders strictly regulate and limit the killing.
Northern Arapaho officials have said the tribe's decision to seek the permit was closely related to the federal prosecution of Winslow Friday, a tribal member. Friday killed a bald eagle without a permit on the Wind River Indian Reservation in 2005 for use in the Sun Dance.
Former U.S. District Judge William Downes of Casper initially dismissed the federal charges against Friday, ruling it would have been pointless for him to apply for a permit because the Fish and Wildlife Service wouldn't have given it to him.
"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 in 2006. The federal appeals court later reinstated the charges against Friday.
After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, Friday pleaded guilty in tribal court and was ordered to pay a fine.
The Eastern Shoshone Tribe had filed a friend of the court brief in the federal appeals court supporting the Fish and Wildlife Service's appeal of Johnson's ruling.
An attempt to reach Darwin St. Clair Jr., chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, wasn't immediately successful.
Robert Hitchcock, a lawyer for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, said he couldn't comment on the federal agency's decision to drop its appeal.