CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A bill that would allow falconers to capture golden eagles in Wyoming could offer the Northern Arapaho Tribe a legal way to kill eagles for religious use in its annual Sun Dance.
Sen. Bernadine Craft, D-Rock Springs, is sponsor of the bill. It would eliminate a state ban on taking eagles and instead permit people to take them if they're authorized to do so by federal law or state game commission rules.
Craft said Wednesday her bill is intended to allow certified master falconers to capture golden eagles in areas where the birds take a heavy toll on livestock. The bill has passed the Senate and is pending in the House.
The Northern Arapaho Tribe has told Craft it supports the bill because it would allow the tribe finally to take eagles for religious purposes.
The tribe last year received a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowing it to take up to two bald eagles a year for religious purposes. Federal officials said it was the first such permit ever issued to a tribe.
The tribe since has argued that the permit is a sham because it bans the killing of eagles on the Wind River Indian Reservation, which the tribe shares with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. State law bans killing eagles outside the reservation.
The Northern Arapaho Tribe continues to press a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service over the issue. The agency says the reservation ban stems from opposition from the Eastern Shoshone, who have sided with Fish and Wildlife in the legal fight.
Darrell O'Neal Sr., chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, wrote to Craft and her co-sponsors last week expressing the council's appreciation for the legislation.
"We believe the language of (the bill) will allow the tribe to exercise its rights under an existing federal permit to take up to two bald eagles in the state of Wyoming outside the Wind River Reservation," O'Neal said.
"I didn't know that was going to be an effect of the law. Now that I think about it, that's probably correct," said Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete, a member of the Northern Arapaho and a bill co-sponsor. "But that wasn't the primary intent of the bill to begin with. That was to provide for falconers."
Craft said the current state law is inconsistent with Wyoming Game and Fish Commission regulations that would allow master falconers to capture a handful of eagles in designated livestock depredation areas.
"The point of this bill is right now, state statute says there will be no taking of eagles, period, in the state of Wyoming," she said.
Craft noted that there hasn't been a designated livestock depredation area in Wyoming for five years. But if her bill passes, she said, a set number of licensed falconers could take up to two eagles each if an area is designated.
Scott Edberg, with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, testified last month that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service transferred authority over sport falconry to the state in July 2011. He said regulations allow only certified master falconers to capture a limited number of golden eagles.
Edberg has said the department believes the bill would allow the Northern Arapaho Tribe to take eagles outside the reservation.
Bryce Reece, with the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, testified that golden eagles can take a toll on young sheep. "For the sheep industry of Wyoming, at certain times of the year, the golden eagle is a bigger problem than coyotes," he said.
Craft said she would support helping the tribe.
"I feel badly that they're in that Catch-22, and you always have to be careful when you say, 'Go ahead and take a bald eagle,' but this is in respect to their religious rights," Craft said. "Given that it has provided them a solution, kind of unintentionally, I think I'm OK with that."