CHEYENNE, Wyoming — A federal judge has ruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service improperly denied a permit to kill bald eagles to the Northern Arapaho Tribe on its central Wyoming reservation.
U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson ruled Thursday that Fish and Wildlife violated the Northern Arapaho's religious rights. He ordered the agency to reconsider the tribe's application.
Johnson's ruling, coming in a case the Northern Arapaho filed in 2011, is the latest round in a contentious dispute with the federal government over the tribe's need to kill eagles for its annual Sun Dance.
Johnson ruled the agency was wrong to limit the Northern Arapaho permit to taking two eagles a year only outside the boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The tribe shares the reservation with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, which has its own religious grounds for opposing the killing of eagles.
In his ruling, Johnson stated that the issue of whether the federal government may burden one American Indian tribe's exercise of its religious rights to benefit another tribe hasn't come up before in federal law. However, he wrote that it's clear the First Amendment prohibits it.
Attempts to reach a lawyer for the Northern Arapaho Tribe were not immediately successful on Friday.
Ivy Allen, tribal liaison with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Lakewood, Colorado, said Friday the agency will review the judge's order and act on it, but said it's too early to say how long that would take.
"The judge ruled that it was a violation of their religious rights, and it's part of our duty to hold up their religious rights and freedoms," Allen said. "I believe the agency will definitely have to reconsider its position on issuing that permit."
The Northern Arapaho sued the federal agency in 2011 to get the bald eagle permit following the federal prosecution of Winslow Friday, a young tribal member who shot a bald eagle on the Wind River Indian Reservation in 2005 for the Sun Dance. Friday ultimately pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay a fine in tribal court.
Former U.S. District Judge William Downes originally dismissed the federal charges against Friday, ruling that it would have been pointless for him to apply for a permit to take an eagle on the reservation because the Fish and Wildlife Service wouldn't have given it to him anyway.
"Although the government professes respect and accommodation of the religious practices of Native Americans, its own actions show callous indifference to such practices," Downes wrote in 2006.
A federal appeals court in Denver reinstated the charge against Friday before his case was transferred to tribal court.
The bald eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened species in 2007, following its reclassification in 1995 from endangered to threatened. However, the species has remained protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
The Fish and Wildlife Service allows permits to some other tribes to take or maintain certain other types of birds. But agency officials said the permit it issued to the Northern Arapaho Tribe in 2012 allowing it to kill two bald eagles was the first such permit it ever had issued.
The Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a stock of carcasses of eagles and other protected birds — many of them killed by wind turbines and power lines — at a repository in Colorado. It will release feathers or other bird parts to members of federally recognized tribes who apply for them.
Northern Arapaho tribal members, however, have said it's unacceptable to them to use an eagle carcass from the federal repository for their Sun Dance.
Senior members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe appeared at an appeals court hearing court in Denver in late 2007 in support of Friday. Nelson P. White Sr., then a member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, said after the hearing that the birds American Indians receive from a federal depository were rotten, or otherwise unfit for use in religious ceremonies.
"That's unacceptable," White said after the court hearing. "How would a non-Indian feel if they had to get their Bible from a repository?"