A tour of the National Eagle Repository, a federal facility in Colorado that provides eagle feathers and eagle parts to citizens of federally recognized tribes. Phoot: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Trump administration announces change to eagle policy in Indian Country

Just weeks after closing the comment period on a controversial proposal affecting one of Indian Country's most sacred figures, the Trump administration announced a major change for obtaining eagle feathers and eagle parts.

According to the updated policy, announced on Tuesday, federally recognized tribes will be able to keep bald and golden eagle remains found in Indian Country under certain conditions. Previously, such remains had to be turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or to other authorities.

But so long as the tribe reports the remains to the agency and applies for a permit at no cost, the remains can stay in the community following confirmation by law enforcement. Federal officials described the new Tribal Eagle Retention Policy as a way to respect and honor Indigenous traditions.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is honored to have the ability to support tribes’ spiritual, religious and cultural pursuits by authorizing the retention of eagle remains found by federally recognized tribal members on their lands,” Principal Deputy Director Margaret Everson, who is the highest-ranking official at the agency, said in a news release. “By working together, we hope to conserve bald and golden eagle populations for future generations.”

The idea for the policy came about when the agency engaged in outreach with Indian Country in 2017, officials said. Tribal leaders cited a need to be able to obtain eagle feathers and eagle parts from sources other than the National Eagle Repository, a federal facility in Colorado.

It can take years for tribal citizens to obtain feathers and parts from the facility. The wait for a whole bird or whole tail is the longest, with the agency quoting 2 years for parts from an adult bald or golden eagle, and even up to 5 years for parts from an immature golden eagle.

But if the same items were found in Indian Country, the new policy eliminates any lengthy waits. All that's needed is the permit, along with an investigation by a federal agent or a designated tribal law enforcement official, in order for the eagle to stay on the reservation instead of being sent elsewhere.

“Indian Affairs staff have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and tribal nations on a common-sense approach to the handling of bald and golden eagle remains found on Tribal lands," said John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tibe who serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior.

"This updated eagle remains retention policy respects tribal cultural and religious practices while protecting eagle populations now and in the future,” Tahsuda said.

The new policy won't apply to situations in which a bald or golden eagle was killed intentionally or if the bird poses a "human health and safety risk," according to guidelines provided to tribes on Tuesday. For example, contaminated, diseased or poisoned eagle remains are not eligible to stay in Indian Country, according to answers to frequently answered questions prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eagles can be contaminated by pesticides and chemicals. They can even be poisoned by lead, which enters their bodies when they consume other animals that have been shot with lead bullets.

And since it only applies to "Indian Country," including federal property within Indian Country, the updated policy does not open the door for citizens of non-recognized tribes to obtain eagle feathers or eagle parts. Such a sweeping change is the subject of a contentious proposal that drew heated responses from all corners of the nation in recent weeks.

As part of a settlement with the Robert Soto, a spiritual leader and vice chairman of the Lipan Apache Tribe, the Department of the Interior agreed to consider a proposal that would allow citizens of state-recognized and even non-recognized tribes, to obtain, possess and transport eagle feathers and eagle parts. A petition presented on his behalf by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty argues that all "sincere religious believers" should have access to the sacred animal.

"Petitioners propose a common-sense approach that would protect all religious believers, without harming a single bird," the "End The Feather Ban" proposal reads. "The Department should end decades of injustice and adopt a regulation that follows the Constitution and respects the fundamental rights of Native Americans."

Comments on the petition closed on July 14 amid strong objections from federally recognized Indian nations. They believe non-Indians will claim to be "sincere religious believers" and deprive their citizens of the eagles that are central to many of their traditions. Waits for feathers and parts from the National Eagle Repository will become even longer, they assert.

"Tribal members would also be would be made to compete against non-Indians in an already broken permitting system that currently requires tribal members to wait months, if not years, before obtaining eagle feathers, many times in a state of unusable decay, Chairman Luke Duncan of the Ute Tribe and Chairman Robert Flying Hawk of the Yankton Sioux Tribe wrote on Indianz.Com after the close of the comment period.

"There can hardly be a more clear-cut violation of the federal government's trust duties then to amend regulations to benefit non-Indians at the expense of Indians," the tribal leaders wrote on July 18.

The settlement with Soto, whose Lipan Apache Tribe is recognized by the state of Texas but not by the federal government, gives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service till sometime in July 2020 decide whether the objections raised by recognized tribes and their citizens outweigh other Indigenous voices. In the meantime, Soto and his people are allowed to possess and transport eagle feathers and eagle parts until June 2021.

“It is time for the government to recognize that feathers are a gift of the Creator, not the government, and Native Americans deserve lasting legal protections that can’t be revoked at the government’s whim," Soto said of his "End The Feather Ban" petition.

Tribal Eagle Retention Policy - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

New Tribal Eagle Retention Policy

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Press Release: Service Announces Landmark Revision to Eagle Retention Policy

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