Environment | National

Native Sun News: Proposed eagle regulations stir controversy

The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy. All content © Native Sun News.

The eagle, or Wanbli, has long been a cornerstone of traditional spirituality for many Native American peoples, especially the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, as well as a subject of controversy resulting from the mistreatment and near-annihilation of these revered creatures by non-Natives.

And once again, the eagle is at the center of a maelstrom following a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service open call for comments and suggestions regarding proposed changes in the regulations governing captive eagle reproduction and the use of eagles for wildlife abatement purposes.

The FWS published separate, but concurrent, notices in the Federal Register on July 6 to solicit recommendations from the general public on whether the bald eagle and the golden eagle, the only two eagle species native to the North American continent, should be included among other raptors, or birds of prey, that may be propagated in captivity under federally regulated raptor propagation permits and used to control and reduce pestilent smaller birds and other wildlife, as well.

Recommendations were accepted via a specially created FWS website portal and through standard U.S. mail and hand delivery, as well. The three-month solicitation period closed on Oct. 4.

“FWS is apparently blind to the fact that our eagles are the messengers to the Creator and carry religious and cultural significance,” said Gary Siftar, member of the Cherokee Nation. The agency “seems to be willing to give falconers almost carte blanche access to our highest being for the sport of falconry,” he said.

Falconers are individuals who breed and train large birds of prey, generally falcons and hawks, primarily for sport.

The FWS, which originated in 1871 as the congressionally established U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries, is an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior dedicated to the management of fish, wildlife and habitats. The mission of the agency reads as “working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”

In 1940, when the bureaus of Fisheries and Biological Survey were combined after being transitioned to the Department of the Interior, the modern era incarnation of the FWS was created.

FWS is charged with the explicit responsibility of managing migratory birds, inclusive of bald and golden eagles, under authority based in both the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA) of 1940 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918. Current FWS regulations do not allow the commercialized, widespread breeding of bald and golden eagles.

The BGEPA only allows live bald and golden eagles to be taken and possessed under restrictive circumstances.

Golden eagles that are destroying livestock or other wildlife may be taken from the wild by falconers. Bald eagles, regardless of whether they are wild or captive-bred in origin, cannot be held for falconry.

Bald and golden eagles may not be sold, purchased or bartered under any circumstances. Most eagles in captivity are held under permits for exhibition and education and Native American aviaries.

In response to public interest in the use of trained raptors to haze, or scare, depredating and other problem birds from airports and agricultural crops, the FWS drafted the preliminary policy to establish migratory bird abatement permits. The proposal is inclusive of the use of bald and golden eagles.

While the FWS deals mostly with the biological and legal aspects of wildlife, it is often caught between competing interests.

“I can’t believe they want to treat the eagle as property that they buy, sell and breed as if the eagle is a chicken or other domestic creature,” said Wanbli Win in response the FWS’s unprecedented move. “The wasicu [white people] could not kill the eagle off with DDT so now (they) will hybridize and breed the eagle out of existence via the sportsmen to whom this is nothing more than a hobby,” she said.

DDT – widely used as a crop insecticide following the end of World War II in 1945 – was initially blamed by early environmentalists for the near-extinction of the bald eagle, which is also the national emblem and bird of the U.S. Less publicized reports on the specific reasons for the decline of the bald eagle throughout the 20th century refute this claim, however.

As early as 1921, the journal Ecology reported that bald eagles were threatened with extinction – 22 years before DDT production even began. According to a report in the National Museum Bulletin, the bald eagle reportedly had vanished from New England by 1937 – ten years before widespread use of the pesticide.

Bald eagle numbers in the U.S. were estimated to be between 300,000 and 500,000 in the 1700s. Throughout the course of the 20th century, numbers dwindled to 500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states.

Prior to the passage of the federal BGEPA, bald eagle populations were considered a nuisance and routinely shot by many non-Native hunters, farmers and fishermen. The significance of hunting and human encroachment as factors in the eagle’s near-demise have long been underplayed in the more popular anti-DDT outcry and literature, which ultimately led to the chemical’s ban by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1972.

In 1973, the federally initiated Endangered Species Act was passed into law – primarily as a result of the bald eagle’s push to the brink of extinction. The act, which is also administered by the FWS, eventually led to the recovery in numbers of the bald eagle. Hunting, poaching and human encroachment have continually hindered the avian species’ population renewal, however.

The FWS attributed bald eagle population reductions to a “widespread loss of suitable habitat,” but noted that “illegal shooting continues to be the leading cause of direct mortality in both adult and immature bald eagles,” according to a 1978 report in the Endangered Species Tech Bulletin.

A 1984 National Wildlife Federation publication listed hunting, power line electrocution, collisions in flight and poisoning from eating ducks containing lead shot as the leading causes of eagle deaths.

In addition to these reports, numerous scientific studies and experiments vindicate DDT. Between 1961 and 1977, the FWS examined every bald eagle found dead in the U.S. – a total of 266 birds – and reported no adverse effects caused by DDT or its residues.

One of the most notorious DDT “factoids” is that it thinned bird egg shells. But a 1970 study published in Pesticides Monitoring Journal reported that DDT residues in bird egg shells were not correlated with thinning. Numerous other feeding studies on caged birds indicate that DDT is not associated with egg shell thinning.

Such myths endure because of endless repetition. The environmentalists who wanted DDT banned have constantly repeated the myths over the last 45 years, while most of DDT’s defenders lost interest after the so-called miracle chemical was summarily banned in 1972. DDT was originally used with great success in the second half of World War II to control malaria and typhus, both insect-borne illnesses, among civilians and troops.

Whatever the cause of the bald eagle’s virtual extermination, the bird of prey was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in August of 2007. The bald eagle is now flourishing across the North American continent and no longer needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act, according to the FWS.

There are presently over 5,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous U.S., with an approximate total of 70,000 bald eagles in the whole of North America.

Interestingly, the FWS attributed the replenishment of the bald eagle to not only habitat protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act for nesting sites and important feeding and roosting sites, but to the outlaw of DDT, as well. The accolade for the ban on DDT, which indicates that the pesticide had a deleterious effect on bald eagle populations, is in direct contrast to the findings of eagle necropsies performed by the FWS from 1961 to 1977 that showed no adverse effects from DDT.

DDT, however, has been scientifically proven to become more concentrated, or biomagnified, as it progresses through the food chain. Reports of such bio-magnification and its effects on both animals and humans are still being published today.

The MBTA has established stringent federal regulations for the taking, possession and transportation of bald eagles, golden eagles and their “parts, nests, and eggs” for “scientific, educational, and depredation control purposes; for the religious purposes of American Indian tribes; and to protect other interests in a particular locality” such as agricultural production areas.

Narrow exceptions to the MBTA – made primarily throughout the 1970s and especially in response to the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 – are collectively, and informally, referred to as the “eagle feather law.” The law enables Native Americans to uninhibitedly continue traditional spiritual practices that involve the use of eagle feathers.

Pursuant to the eagle feather law and the BGEPA, the FWS also administers the National Eagle Repository and the permit system for Native American “religious” use of eagle feathers.

The National Eagle Repository, located near Denver, was founded in the early 1970s as a means to allow Natives access to legally protected eagle feathers and other parts needed for certain spiritual and cultural activities.

The repository provides a central location for the receipt, storage and distribution of bald and golden eagles that are found dead.

Under the current language of the eagle feather law, only individuals of “certifiable” Native American ancestry enrolled in federally recognized tribes are legally authorized to obtain eagle feathers. Unauthorized persons found with an eagle or its parts in their possession are subject to a misdemeanor fine of up to $100,000 and sentence of up to one year in prison for the first offense. A second offense is upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony and carries a maximum penalty of a $250,000 fine and two years in prison.

The law further allows for individuals who are adopted members of federally recognized tribes to obtain eagle feather permits, as well.

The eagle feather law has incited ongoing debate over the criteria of ownership and possession of eagles and eagle parts based on ethnicity and Native American tribal membership. There have been several challenges from non-Native individuals and organizations to the eagle feather law in which the law’s constitutionality and effects of ethnic segregation and preference have been called into question.

Currently, there are also a number of both Native and non-Native individuals and organizations dedicated to amending the language of the law to allow Native American tribal members and tribes greater opportunity to include select non-Native Americans as acceptable owners of eagle feathers for spiritual use.

For ages, numerous Native American peoples have used the feathers, bones, claws and heads – the “parts” – of eagles for ceremonial purposes unencumbered. Blessed eagle feathers and other body parts are often prominent, even necessary, paraphernalia for ceremonial purification, prayer, dance and healing.

The gifting of an eagle feather by an elder or spiritual leader confers honor and blessing on an individual. Eagle feathers are also densely symbolic.

Ron Rader, a powwow dancer whose traditional garb includes feathers and parts of golden eagles, said of the FWS’s eagle feather permit process in The Los Angeles Times: “It’s the same as having to have a permit to carry a cross.”

“In most Native American tribes, the eagle holds the highest religious and cultural standing,” said Siftar. “Granting eagle possession and breeding rights to non-Native Americans would be seen by most Native Americans, and perhaps the courts, as conflicting with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act,” he said.

Many Native Americans simply do not want non-Natives to possess and control eagles, Siftar said, as such acquiescence is akin to sacrilege.

“In my opinion, the Fish and Wildlife Service has done this in stages and without sufficient face-to-face tribal consultation on our most sacred cultural icon,” said Siftar. “Also, they seem to be doing by regulation something that is counter to federal legislation,” he said. Any consultation with tribes on the part of FWS will be nothing more than superficiality, according to Wambli Win. “Find a few token Indians who say this is okay and away (the FWS) will go,” she said.

“Just like the Indians are being bred out of existence through assimilation, now the eagle seems to be headed to a similar fate,” said Wambli Win.

(Contact Jesse Abernathy at staffwriter@nsweekly.com)

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