Wyoming reviewing tribal eagle permit issues

By Ben Neary
Cheyenne, Wyoming (AP) April 2012

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is evaluating whether it believes the Northern Arapaho Tribe would need state permission to kill bald eagles outside the tribe’s reservation.

Game Department Director Scott Talbott said he couldn’t say how long it will take his agency to decide the issue. He also declined to say whether the state is considering entering a legal dispute between the Northern Arapaho and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the eagle permit issue.

The Fish and Wildlife Service on March 9 issued the Northern Arapaho Tribe the nation’s first permit allowing the killing of bald eagles for religious purposes. Tribal elders and American Indian activists initially hailed the permit as a victory for tribal sovereignty and religious freedom.

However, the Northern Arapaho last week filed an amended federal complaint against the Fish and Wildlife Service calling the permit a “sham.”

The federal permit specified the Arapaho must kill the eagles outside the Wind River Indian Reservation. The Arapaho share the reservation with the Eastern Shoshone, who oppose killing eagles there.

In its amended complaint, the Northern Arapaho noted that the federal permit restricts the tribe to killing up to two bald eagles this year limits outside the reservation. However, the tribe also notes that the federal permit requires adherence to state law and that the state itself prohibits killing eagles.

The Northern Arapaho tribe argued that government action barring tribal members from taking bald eagles for religious purposes violates their free exercise of religion.

Talbott said that his agency has been in contact with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the eagle permit issue but hasn’t discussed the question of whether the state believes the Northern Arapaho would need state permission to kill eagles off the reservation. He said state law prohibits killing eagles.

The tribe first sued the federal agency in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne last fall seeking to force it to issue the permit after its permit application languished for more than two years. The permit application followed the lengthy federal prosecution of a young Northern Arapaho man who killed an eagle on the reservation with a rifle.

Talbott said he couldn’t comment on whether the state might seek to enter the litigation over the permit issue. Wyoming Attorney General Greg Phillips also declined comment.  

Matt Hogan, assistant regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told The Associated Press last month that Wyoming would not have to give its permission for Northern Arapaho members to kill eagles off the reservation. An attempt to reach a spokesman  was unsuccessful.

Norman Willow, a member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, said that the tribe believes strongly that it should be allowed to take eagles on its own reservation.

“We didn’t want to take it and put it in somebody’s backyard, we wanted to keep it in our boundaries,” Willow said of the eagle killing.

Asked whether the permit issue has created any stress between the Arapaho and Shoshone, Willow said, “We’re not even worried about them. It’s our suit and it’s our right, and we’re not even thinking about what anybody thinks.”