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Hopi eagle hunt raises hackles

Protected to preserve 700-year-old Indian ruins, Wupatki National Monument is now a symbolic center of controversy with the Hopi tribe's request to gather golden eagle chicks for an ancient ritual  

Nestled in the arid Painted Desert of northeastern Arizona, Wupatki National Monument is the site of 700-year-old Hopi Indian ruins.

Long before the National Park System was established to preserve the ruins, Hopis considered the area a sacred ancestral spot. For thousands of years, young members of the tribe have scaled the mesas in search of golden eagle nests.

Considered messengers between the secular and spiritual world, the eagle chicks were smothered as a part of a Hopi ritual to attract rain to the area.

Today, controversy swirls over the tribe's request to capture baby golden eagles in the nationally protected area.

For the time being, the National Park Service has settled on a policy that would allow Hopis to capture the young eagles as part of their religious rites under the Religious Freedom Act. Conservation groups are watching carefully as the rule unfolds.

Currently, wildlife may be hunted or taken from national parks only where hunting is specifically authorized by law or treaty. Very few of these treaties exist. As a result, the NPS has repeatedly rejected attempts by tribes to assert traditional hunting rights.

Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona, houses pueblos constructed on rock outcroppings  

In 1999, after Wupatki National Monument officials refused a request from the Hopi tribe to take golden eaglets, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt voided the park's decision and announced his intention to develop a new policy to accommodate Native American "take" of non-endangered species.

The controversy recalls the Makah tribe's legal battle over the right to hunt gray whales for subsistence in the Pacific Northwest.

Unlike gray whales, golden eagles are not listed under the Endangered Species Act. While the Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed tribes to kill golden eagles and hawks on many private and public lands, the agency has not extended the right on national parks.

Conservation groups have expressed concern that the rule could open the door to widespread hunting on federally protected land.

According to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the draft proposal could "end the status of national parks as wildlife sanctuaries."

A PEER survey found that Indian tribes have submitted proposals to hunt in a number of national parks. More than a third of the national parks surveyed by PEER reported requests from affiliated tribes to hunt, trap or otherwise collect animals.

In the Grand Canyon, for example, the Hualapi tribe has asked to hunt bighorn sheep and deer on park land. In Glacier National Park, the Kootenai tribe is attempting to establish reservation rights on park land that would include hunting.

Non-native groups have also proposed to hunt in national parks. In 1986 the National Rifle Association sued the Interior Department on the basis that hunting and trapping was consistent with the park's mandate to conserve wildlife. The case was denied but conservation groups worry that similar proposals may reappear.

PEER is concerned that there are not enough golden eagles at Wupatki to support the take and has criticized the Department of the Interior for refusing to release population data about golden eagles.

"This lame-duck move by secretary Babbitt is bad policy done badly," said PEER director Frank Buono, a former superintendent at Joshua Tree National Park. "A policy change of this magnitude should be submitted to Congress for open debate rather than accomplished through administrative subterfuge."

The eaglet issue is not cut-and-dried in the conservation community. After debating the issue internally for more than a year, the Wilderness Society remains neutral on the issue.

"We are waiting to see how the proposed rule is written," said Rose Fennell, park director for the Wilderness Society. "It's a sticky wicket. The environmental community works a lot with different Native American groups. There are tribes we have turned to time and time again, and they have turned to us."

Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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Wupatki National Monument
National Park Service
Wilderness Society
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
  • draft proposed rule

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