DOJ Clarifies Policy on Tribal Use of Eagle Feathers

On October 12, 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a new policy formally recognizing Native Americans’ right to possess and use protected eagle feathers and other parts considered sacred by many tribes.

Migratory birds, including the eagle, have long been protected under federal wildlife laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. These acts prohibit the import and export, sale, use and possession of feathers and other parts of such birds. While the DOJ has stated that it is their practice not to prosecute tribal members under these laws, actual practice has created a great deal of confusion. In past years, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) conducted sting operations and raids on Indian reservations resulting in a number of seizures from and arrests of tribal members for the possession of protected bird feathers. The new policy formally recognizes the rights of tribal members to use otherwise protected bird feathers and other parts in recognition of the religious and cultural importance of eagles and other migratory birds to Native Americans.

According to the new DOJ guidelines, tribal members will continue to be prohibited from killing eagles and other migratory birds, and from purchasing or selling feathers and parts of such birds. Tribal members are able to legally obtain feathers and parts of eagles through the National Eagle Repository, and of other migratory birds through non-eagle migratory bird repositories administered by FWS. Additionally, tribal members will be allowed to pick up naturally molted or fallen feathers found in the wild and donate, loan, and exchange protected feathers and parts to other members without compensation. International travel and the import and export of protected bird feathers will continue to require appropriate permits issued by FWS (and, in certain instances, may require additional permits issued under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Please contact Cultural Heritage Partners if we can help you navigate the new DOJ policy, or other federal, state and international wildlife laws and exemptions.

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