FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has authorized the Hopi Tribe to collect 40 nesting golden eagles this year for religious use, but the number that can be taken from the neighboring Navajo Nation will be limited for the first time under the federal permit.
Hopi religious practitioners have been gathering the eagles for centuries each spring and raising them in villages that rise above the surrounding desert. Once they've matured, the eagles are offered as a sacrifice and the birds' feathers are given to certain tribal members to be used in other ceremonies and rituals.
The golden eagle also plays a role in the religion of the Navajo, who use the birds' feathers to protect themselves from harm and as sacred adornments. But the Navajo don't agree with the Hopi practice of killing eagles.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has taken note of the conflicting beliefs and for the first time conducted an environmental assessment before approving the Hopi's permit for this year. The assessment that also studied data on eagle populations found that the population overall is sustainable and that the impacts to Navajo culture and religion would not be significant.
A separate compact between the Hopi and Navajo tribes in 2006 allowed the Hopis to collect 18 eaglets from Navajo land and have access to sacred sites. But the permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service, announced Tuesday, allows the Hopi Tribe to take no more than five eaglets from the Navajo reservation.
"It's a balancing act between the two cultures and the two interests in terms of each of their homelands and as to their ability to manage for a healthy, sustainable population of wildlife as well as practice their religious beliefs," Greg Hughes, chief of the migratory birds office for the agency's Southwest region, said Wednesday.
Hopi chief of staff Micah Loma'omvaya said the tribe is analyzing the decision to see what it means for religious practitioners and how it impacts collections. The Fish and Wildlife Service said some clans could be denied the opportunity to gather eaglets from certain sites.
The Hopi Tribe is one of few American Indian tribes authorized to take live eagles for religious use. Typically, enrolled tribal members who want eagle feathers or other parts of the bird to practice their religion obtain them from the National Eagle Repository, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The number of birds that Hopis have captured has ranged from two to 38 per year under previous permits. The Fish and Wildlife Service allowed the Hopi Tribe to take an unlimited number of birds between 1994 and 1996 but has capped the number at 40 each year since 1997.
The tribe's Cultural Preservation Office administers the permits on behalf of 20 to 25 clans who go on eagle pilgrimages on the Hopi reservation and the western portion of the Navajo Nation. Eagles also have been gathered from state land and a national monument and a national park. The tribe has said the vast majority of practitioners comply with tribal protocols and federal requirements for gathering the eaglets.
The federal government has prosecuted Hopi tribal members for illegally taking golden eagles, including at least eight tribal members in 2010 whose sentences ranged from probation to jail time and who were required to pay restitution.