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Old 06-19-2008, 11:29 PM   #5
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Feds face big backlog of eagle requests

By WHITNEY ROYSTER
Star-Tribune environmental reporter Wednesday, May 24, 2006 2:08 AM MDT



By WHITNEY ROYSTER
Star-Tribune environmental reporter Wednesday, May 24, 2006 2:08 AM MDT

JACKSON -- How long it takes an American Indian tribe to get dead eagles or eagle parts from the federal government for religious ceremonies seems to be a key issue for a federal judge.

During a court hearing here Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Downes repeatedly asked witnesses to clarify how much time elapsed between the time of their application to an eagle carcass repository in Colorado and when they received a bird or bird parts.

Witnesses testified it took up to four years to receive anything.

A representative of the repository testified there is a backlog of requests, as the center does not receive many eagles, and many are in poor condition.

During what was expected to be the last day of testimony in a hearing over whether to dismiss charges against Winslow Friday, an Arapaho man who shot a bald eagle last year, both sides presented arguments to support their case. Closing arguments are expected Thursday, and it is unclear when Downes will rule on whether the case should move forward.

Northern Arapaho member Harvey Spoonhunter testified that he applied for an immature golden eagle in 1997, and in 2001 was told the repository couldn't obtain one. He said the repository sent a bald eagle, but the head and body were decayed. He said eagles from the repository "would not be acceptable" for religious ceremonies because of their poor condition.


But Spoonhunter was cagey in his responses to Downes when asked if an eagle that was shot would be acceptable for religious ceremonies. Spoonhunter first said he would not shoot a bird, then said in today's world "life has changed." He said he's not sure how birds are obtained for ceremonies.

The entire hearing is unusual, as American Indians typically do not talk about their ceremonies. Several elders from the tribe would not testify in the hearing because of their cultural beliefs.

Daniel Caldwell, another Arapaho man, said he applied for an eagle in 1998 and got a response in 2002. He said the carcass was spoiled.

Bernadette Atencio, supervising wildlife repository specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, testified for the government that her agency processes about 25 applications per week. She also said the waiting period for an immature golden eagle is about four years, and about two years for a bald eagle.

Atencio said there are about 4,000 pending requests.

Atencio also testified that in her previous job, she processed permit applications for lethal "take" of eagles. No permits were issued for religious purposes during her tenure from 1982 to 1995, but no applications were received.

Brian Milsap, chief of the division of migratory bird management for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said there were very few applications for lethal "take" permits before 2003, and since then there have been no requests.

Defense attorneys have argued American Indians do not know they can apply for permits to kill eagles. Atencio testified the Fish and Wildlife Service does not advertise the permits because eagles are threatened, but information is available.

Friday, an Arapaho man, is charged with illegally killing a bald eagle on March 2, 2005, on the Wind River Indian Reservation. He testified Tuesday he did not check with elders to see if it was OK for him to shoot an eagle for a religious ceremony. He also said he shot the eagle because he made a promise to his dying grandmother he would participate in a ceremony for which an eagle is required.

He also said after he shot the bird he played video games, during which an Arapaho game warden -- whose last name is also Friday -- approached him about the shooting.

"Maybe what I did was wrong, but I didn't know that," said Friday, 21.

Nathan Friday, a cousin of Winslow Friday, said he applied for a bird from the Colorado repository in 2001 and never heard anything back. Two wildlife officials said there has never been any record of his application or his name. Nathan Friday was sponsoring the ceremony for which Winslow killed the eagle, though Nathan said he did not ask his cousin to shoot a bird.

Defense attorneys maintain Friday is protected under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and should not be penalized. Prosecutors argue he broke the law, and if charges are dropped it could have dramatic impacts to eagle populations, with people killing them for religious ceremonies. Law enforcement would also have trouble determining who was killing birds legally versus illegally.

Bald eagles have recovered substantially since they were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1978. They were reclassified from endangered to threatened in 1995, and Fish and Wildlife Service biologists estimate there are now more than 7,700 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the Lower 48.

Even if they are removed from the list, bald eagles would still be protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

There is one documented pair of nesting eagles on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Friday's charge, if it stands, carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.

Environmental reporter Whitney Royster can be reached at (307) 734-0260 or at [email protected].
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