By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Days after gaining a first permit to kill two bald eagles, members of the Northern Arapaho tribe in Wyoming said they intend to negotiate with the U.S. government for the right to claim more of the revered birds for use in religious ceremonies. The tribe's plan is raising concerns among animal advocates, who say there are ways to honor spiritual traditions without requiring the death of animals. In the first decision of its kind, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on March 9 approved a so-called "take" permit allowing the tribe to harvest two of the national birds. The approval came after the tribe filed a lawsuit in federal court that argued the government's failure to allow the Northern Arapaho to claim bald eagles infringed on their religious and sovereign rights. Tribal leaders said the permit, which can be renewed yearly, is "a start" but two eagles are insufficient to meet the needs of the 9,600 Northern Arapahos in west-central Wyoming. "After further negotiations are pursued, we may be able to obtain even more eagles down the road," William C'Hair, the tribe's language and cultural commissioner, told Reuters. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal protection group, said the service's decision sets an alarming precedent. "There is something unsettling about allowing the authorized killing of the bald eagle," he said. "There are hundreds of tribes in this country. What would be the consequences of widespread applications for bald eagle killing permits?" Bald eagles, depicted on the Great Seal of the United States, were nearly extinct before the government banned the pesticide DDT in 1972 and later brought the bird under federal protections.
Plummeting populations of bald eagles were instrumental in passage of landmark conservation legislation in the 1970s like the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and the comeback of the bird - with breeding pairs soaring from 400 in 1963 to 9,700 today - is considered a triumph of that law.
The raptors were removed from the threatened and endangered species list in 2007, but other federal laws make it mostly illegal to kill them. The Fish and Wildlife Service gave the Northern Arapaho the permit after determining it was allowable for religious purposes of Indian tribes under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act provided it did not hamper the preservation of eagle populations, said spokeswoman Diane Katzenberger. The agency will use those criteria in evaluating similar requests from other tribes, she said, adding, "However, at this time we do not have other pending permit applications." The Northern Arapaho say the eagle represents a powerful figure in the tribe's lore and in their spiritual practices, many of which were historically outlawed by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs amid a program of involuntary acculturation of native peoples. Tribal leaders said a government program designed to give American Indians feathers and other parts of eagles killed by accident or by poaching was inadequate. Spiritual leader Nelson White said tribal members have received badly decomposed eagles from the national repository - when they gain eagles at all. "We had a tribal member wait for five years for a bird from the repository. When he pulled it out of the box, it was a goose," he said. The Humane Society's Pacelle said many are sensitive to the plight of Native Americans and applaud their cultural and religious bonds with animals and nature.
But he said efforts to honor those should be focused on clearing bureaucratic hurdles to ensure tribes receive feathers and eagle parts fit for use and in a timely fashion. "We can honor those religious traditions and ceremonies and find ways not to take the lives of eagles," he said. Despite criticism by outsiders, the Northern Arapaho applaud what they say is an affirmation of their rights to worship. "We're waiting on the voice of the eagle," said White. "In our way, the first thunder we hear represents the eagle hollering. That's when the new year is here, the grass is coming up, the birds are back and it is a new beginning. "The decision about the bald eagles is also a new beginning - for the tribe, for the newborns and for the ones who are coming," he said.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Vicki Allen)