The U.S. Department of Justice recently finalized its policy regarding the use of feathers or other parts of federally protected birds. For most of us, getting caught with a bald eagle feather or raptor claw would be a criminal offense, and killing one might mean jail time. In the recent clarification, however, Native Americans are exempted, allowing federally recognized tribes to use the feathers and other parts of federally protected birds.
Federal wildlife laws, like the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, were put into place to ensure that eagles and other bird populations remain healthy and sustainable. These laws generally prohibit the possession, use and sale of the feathers or other parts of federally protected birds, as well as the unauthorized killing of such birds.
These majestic birds are a national treasure, and deserve to live out their noble lives without fear of being shot from the sky or caught in a snare. Besides being beautiful and rare, federally protected birds provide a valuable service to the eco-system, eating dead animals and controlling populations of small rodents we might consider to be pests. Logging and the widespread use of a pesticide called DDT almost wiped out the Bald Eagle in the mid-20th century, and it took many years on the endangered species list before the population could recover. The two acts mentioned previously were passed to prohibit the killing, selling, trading, or possession of protected birds by anyone in the U.S., but this creates a problem for America’s original citizens.
Eagles and other raptors hold great meaning for many Native American tribes and sometimes play a role in tribal religious and cultural practices. Under the previously mentioned laws, members of a tribe could be prosecuted for participating in rituals that have been part of their culture for centuries. The DOJ’s clarification, however, seeks to balance the obligation to enforce federal wildlife laws with a commitment to support tribal sovereignty and tribal self-determination.
Under the new policy, the DOJ agrees not to prosecute federally recognized tribes who possess, give, exchange, lend or travel with feathers or parts of eagles or migratory birds. However, buying or selling the feathers or other parts of eagles or other migratory birds or trading them for goods or services (or attempting to do so), and killing the bird will still be a criminal offense.
“Eagles and other native migratory bird species are a vital part of our nation’s natural heritage, and we remain dedicated to providing every American with the opportunity to experience them in the wild,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “This new policy honors the past while looking to the future, contributing to the preservation of these species and ensuring that tribal members can continue their religious and cultural practices for generations to come.”
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