LA Times: Troubling Chapter in Bald Eagle Success Story

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Story is a condensed version of my masters’ project at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Published on page 1 of the LA Times.

SITKA, Alaska — A smile crinkled Steve Johnson’s face as he opened the express-mail package on his desk. The box was big enough to hold a new computer, but it was lined with insulation — and what Johnson extracted, frozen solid in separate plastic bags, were the body, talons, wings and head of a bald eagle. A separate bag held several long white tail feathers.

“Have you ever held a dead eagle?” he asked an astonished co-worker.

Johnson is a Tlingit Indian of the Sitka tribe of Alaska, and his extraordinary package was part of a striking environmental success story — the rescue of the American bald eagle from the edge of extinction.

Thirty years ago, as a result of pesticides, water pollution, hunting and other factors, bald eagles had vanished from all but the most remote corners of the country that had made them a national symbol. Today, they can be found in every state except Hawaii, and are even making their home in a New York City park.

But the eagles’ comeback, still fragile at best, is threatened by an unusual confluence of factors. And, paradoxical as it may seem, Johnson’s package is linked to the policies and institutions that made the resurgence possible as well as to the new dangers that threaten it.

What enabled eagles to return to areas they had vanished from was a nationwide effort to control pesticides and water pollution, plus the strictest wildlife protection law on the federal books.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act says that anyone who so much as collects a fallen eagle feather off a forest floor could face as much as a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

The sole significant exemption from the ban is for Native Americans, who have long venerated eagles in their religious observances and have used eagle feathers, heads and talons in ceremonies and tribal regalia.

That’s where Johnson and his unusual package come in.

For more than three decades, the National Eagle Repository, an obscure federal agency near Denver, has quietly collected deceased eagles from zoos, highway departments and game wardens, and distributed them to people so they could carry on religious and cultural practices without having to hunt or trap live birds. The repository sends about 1,700 deceased eagles each year to Native Americans across the country.

However, the system of legal protections and government-controlled distribution of eagle parts to Native Americans is showing signs of breaking down.

And the demand for eagle feathers has begun to soar. Black-market prices for eagle feathers and parts are climbing too. And that, wildlife experts fear, could set off a wave of illegal poaching — with disastrous results.

One reason for the growing demand for feathers is that thousands of non-Indian practitioners of New Age religions have embraced Indian beliefs and ceremonies. Four of them are arguing in federal court in Utah that restrictions on possessing eagle artifacts violate their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Demand is growing among Native Americans as well: Indian leaders, seeking a revival of the community bonds that can improve education and prevent alcoholism, are promoting traditional beliefs and ceremonies.

As powwows and other observances grow in number, so does the demand for eagle parts. Currently, it takes as long as five years to have a request filled by the National Eagle Repository.

Many powwows include competitions among Native American performers, with cash prizes awarded, in part, for the most complete regalia.

This year the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation is offering more than $200,000 in prizes at Schemitzun, from the Algonquin word meaning “feast of green corn and dance.” More than 3,000 participants are expected at the festival, near the tribe’s Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut, for the dance competition alone.

Then there are the private collectors of Indian artifacts, many of them in Europe, who pay tens of thousands of dollars for authentic regalia adorned with eagle feathers.

With demand outstripping legal supply, wildlife experts warn that any significant increase in the killing of eagles could undermine their continued recovery. The eagle population is especially vulnerable to disruption by hunters and trappers because the birds’ reproductive cycle is long, slow and barely able to maintain itself under favorable circumstances.

“Eagles are vulnerable to shooting because they produce few young,” said Jody Millar, a bald eagle recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Illinois. “The way they thrive in numbers is through longevity.”

Eagles are usually between 4 and 8 years old when they pair up and begin laying eggs. They remain productive for about 10 years, usually having one successful chick per year. In harsh climates, where they live about 12 years, a typical couple will produce six fledglings. No more than half of the baby eagles survive long enough to reach adulthood.

“Any animal that has a low reproductive rate is going to be sensitive to new sources of mortality,” said James Fraser, an eagle specialist at Virginia Tech who has been studying their reproductive patterns since 1974.

Golden eagles between 2 and 3 years old are especially tempting targets for hunters and trappers because their black and white feathers are most prized by collectors, ceremonial dancers and religious practitioners.

To honor Indian treaties, the Fish and Wildlife Service will issue a permit for eagle feathers to anyone with a government-issued Certificate of Indian Birth, but such permits are not frequently checked.

Also, many Native Americans receive feathers as gifts, but the National Eagle Repository does not require that they get a permit. Nothing distinguishes a gift feather from one acquired illegally.

Sam Jojola, a special agent with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said that checking permits would take too long for the fewer than 200 federal wildlife agents in the field.

“I’m more interested in the most egregious wildlife violations we can find,” Jojola said.

Native Americans retained the right to hunt eagles well into the 20th century. After the government banned eagle hunts, it created the permit system and the repository to allow Indians to maintain their religious practices.

But the permit system and the repository are under attack in the Utah case, which will be argued before a U.S. District Court judge in Salt Lake City this summer.

The defendants, who are being prosecuted by the federal government for possession of eagle feathers, are Utah residents Samuel R. Wilgus Jr., Raymond Hardman, and Christopher and Faye Beath. Wilgus is a member of a Christian sect called the Native American Church; Hardman and the Beaths have spent much of their lives on the remote Uintah and Ouray Reservation, taking part in local Native American ceremonies. None is Native American.

In separate cases in the 1990s, Wilgus and Hardman were found guilty of illegally possessing eagle feathers. Each appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which in August 2002 ordered their cases reheard by the district court to determine whether the government was violating a federal religious freedom law by allowing only members of officially recognized Indian tribes to have feathers. The Beaths were charged in 2000 with illegally possessing eagle parts.

The defendants call the permit system discriminatory and ineffective, saying that the government’s restrictions go beyond what is necessary to protect eagles and preserve Native American culture. They predict that the black market will grow under current policies.

One measure of the rising demand, they say, is the fact that the repository’s waiting list, now as long as five years, was only a few months a decade ago.

Hardman was using a bundle of feathers to purify his truck after transporting a relative’s body to a funeral. At the time, he had a wife and two children with Certificates of Indian Birth, and they regularly took part in religious ceremonies together. When he was given a feather bundle by a Hopi practitioner in Arizona, he promptly called the Fish and Wildlife Service to get a possession permit.

He was told he was ineligible because of his bloodline. Though his wife and children had Certificates of Indian Birth and he was an accepted practitioner of American Indian religion, he was not a member of a tribe.

“They told me not to even bother — that the best thing for me to do would be to turn over my feathers to the authorities,” Hardman said. Instead, he hung the feathers from the rear-view mirror of his Ford pickup.

They stayed there until 1996, when his wife left him and turned him in to tribal police.

Hardman is angry at being prosecuted because, he said, some Native Americans trap, trade and sell eagle feathers. They don’t get caught, he said, because police never check permits.

“If you are buying or selling eagle parts, the likelihood of being detected is slim to none,” said Jojola, the Fish and Wildlife agent.

Hardman said police should check Native Americans’ permits, but Native American practitioners consider that idea offensive.

“It’s the same as having to have a permit to carry a cross,” said Ron Rader, a powwow dancer in Sacramento whose regalia includes the wings and wing feathers of several golden eagles.

But Native Americans warn that allowing non-Indians to possess feathers because they practice Indian religions would create new demand for black-market feathers and spur an increase in poaching.

Edward Wemytewa, a tribal council member at Zuni Pueblo, a 500-year-old settlement in New Mexico, wrote in an affidavit for the prosecution, “Today, there are very few places left on Zuni lands where eagles still live in the wild. Additional demand for eagle feathers would have a detrimental effect on the Zuni way of life.”

Though practitioners condemn killing or selling eagles, wildlife police, eagle biologists and Native American leaders agree that such a black market exists.

In 2000, one bald eagle and two golden eagles were killed and stolen from the Santa Barbara Zoo; authorities believe the birds were targeted for their feathers.

In an affidavit in the Utah case, Fish and Wildlife Special Agent Kevin Ellis wrote that the black-market price for a whole golden eagle carcass was about $1,200, a price that has tripled since the 1980s.

“It’s a problem of supply and demand,” said Cindy Schroeder, who retired last year from the Fish and Wildlife law enforcement division. “Every additional dancer or worshipper is more demand. The supply is flying around in the air.”

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About Steven Bodzin

Steven Bodzin is a reporter. He blogged when he was a freelancer.

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