Natives question federal eagle law

Federal law makes it a crime to possess eagle parts without permit

Posted: Sunday, December 04, 2005

Federal law

Who are allowed to posses feathers or carcasses: American Indians, Alaska Natives.

Restrictions: Parts may be used for religious purposes only. It's not permitted to sell, barter, trade or to give away parts to non-Natives. Collection of parts is not allowed.

How to legally obtain parts: Natives must apply to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Bald Eagle Repository in Commerce City, Colo. Only members of federally recognized tribes may obtain parts.

For permit details: Contact Meg Laws at (907) 786-3693 or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Migratory Bird Permit Office, 1011 East Tudor Road, Anchorage, AK 99503, or visit the info page

Some Southeast Alaska Native leaders are raising questions about a federal law that makes picking up eagle feathers a criminal offense.

The law is likely flouted by thousands of households in Alaska, both Native and non-Native, who don't realize that it is a crime to possess a feather without a permit.

Few Alaskans apply for such permits, according to a federal supervisor at the National Eagle Repository, the only location in the United States that can legally grant eagle parts to Native Americans. Ironically, many of the eagle carcasses at the repository come from Alaska. Meanwhile, 3,000 people are on the repository's waiting list for eagle parts, which can only be used for religious purposes.

In Juneau, the idea of having little access to bald eagle feathers seems ridiculous because they are everywhere - on beaches, in yards, on parking lots.

The federal permit program is disgraceful, said Brad Fluetsch, a Juneau resident and grand camp president for the Alaska Native Brotherhood.

Until he realized that it was illegal, Fluetsch enjoyed giving bald eagle feathers to other Natives at conventions.

His source was his own yard. It is littered with feathers from eagles who roost in his spruce tree, Fluetsch said.

"I think a lot of people (in Juneau) have these feathers in their homes. It means a lot to both Natives and non-Natives," Fluetsch said.

"There is no other feather like it. ... It's a thing of beauty," added Gustavus artist Lou Cacciopo.

"I'm sorry that found feathers can't be used in artwork because they are beautiful. We should be able to use things that the Earth provides," said Cacciopo, who uses feathers from nonmigratory birds and grouse to adorn the masks he creates at his art studio.

National Eagle Repository Supervisor Bernadette Atencio said she often hears complaints from groups about the permit program. "A lot of tribes don't want us regulating anything to do with their religious practices," she said.

Atencio argues that the federal agency program is a way to protect the eagles. "That resource could again get depleted," she said, referring to the near extinction of eagles in the Lower 48.

Eagles are one of the two pillars of Tlingits' religious and cultural identity.

"Thousands of feathers are given to our people," said Juneau resident Don Bremner, referring to the bald eagle's annual molt, in which they lose about 20 percent of their feathers.

Bremner works for the Southeast Alaska Inter-Tribal Fish and Wildlife Commission, which recently joined with the Sealaska Heritage Institute in sending a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional office to protest the federal laws regarding bald eagles in Alaska.

The Nov. 22 letter was also sent to other Native organizations, Bremner said.

The letter asks the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to exempt Alaska Natives from needing permits to obtain eagle parts. It also asks the federal agency to consider delisting Alaska bald eagles from the Endangered Species Act. The letter argues that Alaska bald eagles are genetically distinct from Lower 48 populations.

Sealaska, the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska, is also watching the eagle permit issue carefully.

"The possession of eagle feathers has become a growing concern among Native Americans. A Sealaska shareholder at this year's annual meeting specifically brought up the issue and asked Sealaska to clarify the rules and regulations around eagle feather possession," the corporation stated in a November newsletter.

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed taking bald eagles off the Endangered Species Act in 1999, but so far, delisting has not occurred.

During the Clinton administration, permits to obtain eagle parts were limited to religious use. Previously, permits could be obtained for educational and scientific purposes.

Some now argue that the federal permit program helped create an artificial demand for eagle feathers and carcasses that are used on the powwow circuit in the Lower 48.

Earlier this year, at least 50 bald eagles were discovered mangled and buried in shallow graves near two First Nation reserves near Vancouver, British Columbia. A criminal investigation ensued, which showed that the eagles had been harvested by a poaching ring.

In a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. investigation earlier this year, a British Columbia eagle expert said that Natives in the Lower 48 are now incorporating bald eagle feathers into headdresses, which were traditionally made from golden eagle feathers.

CBC quoted David Hancock, the British Columbia eagle expert, saying that his region's eagles "are being shot to provide feathers for the powwow circuit."

The long waiting period for legal eagle parts, which can extend for more than two years, can be blamed in part for the incentive to buy bald eagle parts on the black market, critics say.

"The birds, as soon as they die, become part of the game of federal bureaucracy," said David Olerud, who runs the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines.

"What I've seen happen is now that people (in Alaska) won't mention that they've seen a dead bird ... because that carcass is going to be sent out-of-state," Olerud said.

Olerud added that the best thing for Alaskans to do is to leave any feathers they find on the ground "to rot in nature."

Atencio said she is concerned about how the bottleneck in legal eagle parts could lead to illegal activities. "However, we have gone round and round to figure out how to increase our supply. ... Our hands are kind of tied. We fill requests as quickly as we can."

The Southeast Alaska Inter-Tribal Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Sealaska Heritage Institute have requested a meeting with the Fish and Wildlife Service to go over their concerns.

One urgent matter is that many Alaska Natives have bald eagle feathers in their regalia that they bring to the biennial Celebration, a Southeast Alaska Native gathering in Juneau that is coming up in 2006, said Matt Kookesh, the chairman of the commission.

"Eighty to 90 percent of our households in Alaska have eagle feathers. Nobody has a permit for them that I know of," Kookesh said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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