January 24, 2017

Judge hears arguments in Wyoming bald eagle case

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) – A federal judge heard arguments Friday in a dispute between two American Indian tribes that share a reservation in Wyoming: One says their religious beliefs demand that they kill eagles for their annual Sun Dance while the tribe says their religious beliefs demand the birds be protected.

“You’re trying to reconcile something which can’t be reconciled, aren’t you?” said Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne. He said he will issue a ruling later.

The Northern Arapaho Tribe sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year over its failure to issue a permit allowing it to kill eagles. The Eastern Shoshone Tribe intervened in the lawsuit saying it has an undivided interest in all the eagles on the Wind River Indian Reservation and wants them alive.

The federal agency this spring issued the Northern Arapaho Tribe the nation’s first permit allowing bald eagles to be killed for religious purposes.

However, while the federal permit specified the Northern Arapaho could kill up to two eagles a year, it said they must be killed off the reservation. The state of Wyoming, meanwhile, prohibits anyone from killing eagles off the reservation.

Andy Baldwin, lawyer for the Northern Arapaho, said tribal members’ religious beliefs require them to kill eagles for the Sun Dance. He said they need “clean eagles,” and that it’s unacceptable to use eagle carcasses or body parts available from a federal repository, which collects birds killed by power lines or other causes.

Kimberly Varilek, attorney general for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and a member of the tribe, countered that her tribe has an interest in every eagle and every other animal on the reservation. “The Shoshone Tribe has a relationship where we honor and protect the eagle,” she said. “We don’t kill it.”

Varilek said her tribe has made unsuccessful overtures to the Northern Arapaho to discuss the issue. “They’ve been shunned,” she said.

Baldwin also said it’s not acceptable for the federal agency to pass responsibility to the state government by leaving it up to the Northern Arapaho to seek permission from the State of Wyoming to take a bird off the reservation.

“Fish and Wildlife has essentially endorsed the religious objections of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe as more weighty than the free exercise (of religion) rights of the plaintiffs,” Baldwin said.

Johnson noted that the law prohibiting taking eagles has been on the books for years. He asked Baldwin what the Northern Arapaho Tribe has done in the past to get eagles.

“I think outside of any authority, eagles have been taken on occasion,” Baldwin said.

The federal government in recent years prosecuted Winslow Friday, a young Northern Arapaho man, who killed an eagle on the reservation without a permit. Friday ultimately was sentenced to pay a fine in tribal court.

Coby Howell, lawyer for the federal government, emphasized that the Northern Arapaho Tribe did receive an eagle permit, even though it restricts where the birds could be killed.

Howell said the Fish and Wildlife Service had to address a unique circumstance in crafting the nation’s first permit to kill bald eagles for religious purposes while accommodating Eastern Shoshone opposition to killing the birds.

Howell said the federal agency would be willing to amend the permit to include allowing the Northern Arapaho to take eagles in other states and would work with the tribe if it wanted to ask the state of Wyoming for a state permit valid off the reservation.