March 15th, 2012
10:33 PM ET
By Eric Fiegel, CNN
Washington (CNN) - It's the symbol of America, and for the first time, the U.S. government has granted a Native American tribe a permit to kill two bald eagles for religious purposes.
The permit application was filed in 2008 by the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming and, after years of review, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued it on March 9.
"They did make a case for why the take of a bird from the wild was necessary," Matt Hogan, Denver regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, told CNN.
Last year, the tribe filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the federal government for denying the application, saying it "unreasonably burdens the religious rights of tribal members," court documents stated.
The case is pending.
Hogan, who was in charge of granting the permit, says the lawsuit was not the reason the permit got approved when it did. He says it took time to make sure all the criteria were met and that the permit was in accordance with the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which allows bald eagles to be used by Native Americans in religious ceremonies.
The eagle "flies higher then any other creature. It sees many things. It's closer to the Creator," said Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians. Holden said he was bothered by the comments he was hearing: that this permit would lead to a mass killing of bald eagles.
"How stupid can that be?" he said. "It's a religion. It's what we do. We're more concerned about the eagle population than any culture in this Western Hemisphere. Why would we want to kill all the eagles?"
Hogan said the permit's issuance will have little effect on the powerful raptor. Taking two eagles from the wild "will not in any way jeopardize the status of the eagle population, either in the state of Wyoming or nationwide," he said, "and the good news is bald eagles are doing quite well."
That wasn't the case some 70 years ago, when the species was threatened with extinction, leading Congress to pass a law prohibiting the killing, selling or possession of the bird. In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the threatened and endangered species list.
Hogan said applications for a permit to kill or capture a bald eagle are rare. Native Americans often have to get bald eagle feathers for their ceremonies from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife national feather repository in Denver. Hogan said it can take years for the tribes to get the feathers this way, because demand often exceeds supply.
Holden, who is part Choetaw/Shickasaw, sought to put some perspective on the situation: "If someone ordered a Bible or some religious artifact and they had to wait for a long time, how fair is that?"
The permit is good until February 2013, and Hogan said he knows of no other applications being filed. As part of permit, the tribe has to notify the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within 24 hours once the bald eagles are killed or captured.
Hogan said he is still waiting for that word.
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