Rob Domenech, executive director of the Raptor View Research Center in Missoula, doesn't expect good news from this year's annual eagle migration count. Last year, roughly 50 percent fewer golden eagles made their way through Montana than 15 years ago, and he says odds are the trend will continue.
Domenech explains that eagles, which are now beginning their annual migration north to Canadian nesting grounds, face an onslaught of humanmade threats. Power-line electrocutions, car collisions and general erosion of the birds' natural habitat all contribute to declining numbers. Amid so many hazards, it's tough to get a handle on quantifying specific risks to the raptor population, but Domenech says another factor is clearly playing a role: a black market for eagle parts.
"The illegal feather trade is really a big problem with golden eagles," he says, "and I would imagine bald eagles as well."
American Indian religious tradition holds that eagles take prayers to God. Eagle plumage today is considered a powerful conduit of sacred energy. Gifting a feather from the revered raptor carries the highest compliment.
Comanche Bill Voelker contends that traditional reverence is being tainted by the comparatively new phenomenon of contemporary powwows, during which dancers dress in fancy regalia to compete in dance competitions for cash prizes. Voelker, as co-founder of Sia, the tribally operated Ethno-Ornithological Initiative in Oklahoma, is the first American Indian granted federal permits to care for and breed eagles.
"You have eagles losing their lives so their feathers can adorn fancy war dancers who are competing for tens of thousands of dollars of prize money," he says. "It used to be with our Comanche women, a single eagle plume was worn in an otter hat or in the hair. Today, they look like they're wearing feather dusters. And for every additional plume that means one more eagle that has either lost its life or come through the federal repository."
Since eagles are a federally protected species, anyone convicted of selling eagle parts faces a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. Enrolled tribal members are allowed to obtain eagle plumage through gifting, inheritance or through a repository in Denver that's overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. According to the repository's website, the waiting list for an parts runs, on average, more than three years.
As demand outpaces supply, Voelker says one individual tail feather fetches as much as $100 on the black market.
"And so," he says, "a bird's life isn't worth very much when you compare to that kind of money for people in a repressed area, financially."
As part of an ongoing investigation to curb poaching, the federal government conducted a sting last spring that turned up four individuals—three from the Spokane area—accused of dealing eagle parts. The arrests set off a storm in parts of Indian Country, with tribal representatives expressing concern the federal government was infringing on indigenous religious practices.
Shortly after the arrests, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council and the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council each passed individual resolutions stating the governing bodies would continue using eagle feathers as they have throughout history. The actions sent a signal that tribes are committed to ensuring religious and social customs stay intact, says Steve Brady, chairman of the Northern Cheyenne Cultural Council.
"So many times we've experienced this over the last century and a half or so," says Brady, "when the federal government launches an assault on Native religious practices."
The Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council resolution reflects that theme, stating the ongoing eagle feather investigation is "sending fear and trepidation into the Tribes' cultural and religious practices, to the point where the tribal culture and religion may be forced underground once again."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Joan Jewett says the agency isn't targeting any one group of people and is obligated to enforce the law evenly.
"We strongly support their right to use eagle feathers and there is a legal way to do that," Jewett says.
But Brady says tribal members are frustrated with the federal repository. It's not unusual for members of a tribe to wait for years only to receive mangled birds that have no practical ceremonial or religious use.
"And that's just not compatible with our tribal cultural practices," Brady says. "When you need things, you need them now, especially for religious ceremonies and things like that. You don't have time to wait for the federal government."
Voelker maintains the root of the problem is powwow regalia. If the feathers hadn't become so prominent, there would be sufficient plumage to satisfy religious needs without killing the sacred animal. Meanwhile, he cautions about cloaking illegal eagle part trading under the guise of religious freedoms.
"If we're going to be out here screaming as Native Americans, 'We need commodities like eagle feathers for ceremonial reasons,'" he says, "by God, they better be for ceremonial reasons and not for show."
Domenech prefers not to get caught in the debate between American Indian tradition and protection for eagles; he's careful not to point fingers at who may be dealing in illegal trade. But he does care about ensuring the population continues to migrate through Montana as it has for thousands of years, and fears that what happens in our region—be it poaching or otherwise—will be to blame.
"The general school of thought is, [the numbers are down] because of what happens to them once they come down here to winter," he says. "...There's a lot working against these birds."