A two-year undercover operation called Project Dakota Flyer recently resulted in the arrest and indictment of 15 individuals across nine states and Canada charged with violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and the Lacey Act. Considered one of the largest busts on record, the illegal bird-trafficking ring is charged with trafficking 200 to 250 birds of 40 different species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has investigated similar bird-trafficking rings; however, none has been as large and brazen as the ring in this case. Not only were bald and golden eagles trafficked, owls and hawks were poached for the expressed purpose of being sold for profit. Investigators expect more charges to be filed, including against pawn shop owners, as the investigation continues. However, this case does beg the question, what religious objects should be allowed to be sold and which ones shouldn’t?

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Eagles play a significant role in the religious practices of Native American people, and are crucial for following spiritual protocol. The National Eagle Repository in Denver, Colorado, is currently the only legal outlet indigenous people within U.S. borders must access eagles under their constitutionally-protected religious rights. The process to acquire eagle feathers and other eagle parts is a slow one, often taking years due to a back-log of at least 6,000 applications from members of the 567 federally-recognized tribes from people seeking to practice their religion. The repository does not examine the birds or parts of birds for a cause of death, nor do they clean the remains. Most of the 2,000+ birds at the repository died a result of vehicle collisions, power line electrocutions, poaching, or were found in the wild.


The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 or, “Eagle Act” is intended to protect and conserve the national bird of the United States. Since the bald eagle’s adoption by the Second Continental Congress as the symbol of the United States on June 20th, 1782, its likeness has graced nearly every national emblem. The bald eagle was one of the first species to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act, but its recovery was so dramatic that it was delisted in 2007. A post-delisting monitoring plan has been created to continue protecting its unique place in U.S. culture. A 1962 amendment to the Eagle Act gave exception to federally recognized tribes for religious purposes. Although this amendment removed the blanket ban on anyone possessing eagle parts, administrative delays continue to delay the distribution process.

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Indigenous people in the United States are allowed to apply for eagle feathers or other parts free of charge. However, a single feather usually requires a 6-month wait, while a whole eagle can take up to 4 years. According to the USFWS website, enrolled members of a federally recognized tribe must prove their tribal affiliation and apply for a license to possess eagle feathers. This is a one-time application, so the process including the four-year wait must be repeated for each request. For a tribal member to travel outside the U.S. with eagle parts, another application must be submitted taking at least 60 days and must be repeated for every international trip.

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In the United States, once an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe possesses an eagle feather, they still cannot sell or barter anything made from eagle parts. Eagle parts can be gifted or willed to another enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, but only to another enrolled tribal member or citizen. While this offers some religious freedom, it still provides almost no incentive to Native Americans to engage in the conservation of bald eagles, as they are completely removed from the management-process. Additionally, the ancient practice of hunting eagles or simply capturing a single feather from a living eagle is strictly forbidden.


SCI Foundation has written about the value of wildlife in the past, and our firm belief is that removing the value of a species from those who depend on it leads to a heightened demand and increased poaching. Furthermore, tribal members acquiring eagles on their land is guaranteed by treaty, but prohibited by the Eagle Act, creating a legal conflict that has not yet been challenged in the courts. Just as the Fishing Wars in Washington State lead to tribal members on their ancestral land being arrested for fishing, indigenous people in America are being arrested for hunting and bartering within treaty-established boundaries.

Randy Seiler

(AP Photo/James Nord)

Project Dakota Flyer has brought an end to potentially the largest eagle trafficking ring in the country by arresting desperate and impoverished tribal members. Nearly every person listed on the affidavit is an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe. But what this case has exposed is that the current system of distribution through the Eagle Repository is not adequate or sustainable, and does not meet the needs of Native Americans. It is time for a sustainable solution that allows eagle populations to continue to thrive while also meeting the religious needs of America’s indigenous inhabitants.

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