Judge rebuffs Northern Arapaho in eagle case

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted properly in prohibiting the Northern Arapaho Tribe from killing bald eagles for religious purposes on its central Wyoming reservation.

The federal wildlife agency earlier this year granted the Northern Arapaho the nation’s first permit allowing it to kill up to two bald eagles a year for religious purposes. But the Arapaho challenged the agency’s requirement that the eagles couldn’t be killed on the Wind River Indian Reservation because of objections from the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, which shares the reservation.

U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne entered his ruling against the Northern Arapaho Tribe on Nov. 5. The judge said the Northern Arapaho could pursue further legal action against the federal government claiming that restrictions against killing eagles on the reservation violates the tribe’s religious rights.

Johnson wrote that allowing the Northern Arapaho Tribe to take eagles within the reservation wouldn’t advance the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “compelling interest in fostering and protecting the Eastern Shoshone’s culture and religion and would throw the balance between the Fish and Wildlife Service’s compelling interests out of whack.”

The Northern Arapaho Tribe sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year, saying the federal agency had delayed too long in acting on its application for a permit to kill eagles. The Eastern Shoshone Tribe intervened, saying it had an undivided interest in all the eagles on the Wind River Indian Reservation and wanted them alive.

The federal permit the Northern Arapaho received this year specified that they could kill eagles only off the reservation. However, the State of Wyoming prohibits anyone from killing eagles off the reservation and tribal members said the situation left them empty-handed.

Andy Baldwin, lawyer for the Northern Arapaho, told Johnson at a court hearing in September that tribal members’ religious beliefs required them to kill eagles for their Sun Dance. He said they needed “clean eagles,” and that it would be unacceptable to use eagle carcasses or body parts available from a federal repository, which collects birds killed by power lines or other causes.

Attempts to reach Baldwin for comment yesterday on Johnson’s ruling were unsuccessful.

Kimberly Varilek, attorney general for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and a member of the tribe, said yesterday that she expected the Northern Arapaho Tribe to appeal Johnson’s ruling.

“I think that the most important thing that the judge ruled on, obviously not just upholding the permit in its current form, [was] recognizing the difficulty of trying to find a least-restrictive solution that can accommodate both tribes,” Varilek said. “The judge pointed out again that it is the United States’ responsibility to consider both tribes’ interest(s) here.”

Varilek said the Eastern Shoshone Tribe was satisfied that Johnson had ruled that the federal agency has an obligation to support the practices of both tribes. “I would have to say that when the two tribes can’t find resolution, we end up going before a third party and they try to apply the laws in the best way possible, and I think that they did that in this case,” she said.

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