Possession of Eagle Feathers May Result in Severe Punishments

Eagle feathers sit at the crossroad of wildlife protection and religious liberty. Eagles are a protected species and because of their rarity; both federal and Utah laws generally prohibit possession of their feathers. However, Native Americans who use eagle feathers in religious ceremonies are exempt from these prohibitions, though they must apply for and receive eagle feathers from a repository outside Denver where the federal government stores eagle carcasses.

Utah Code Title 23, Ch. 20, § 3 proscribes the unauthorized taking, selling, transporting or purchasing of any protected wildlife or its parts. An authorized taking requires a license obtained under Utah Code 23-19-1. A violation is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000.

But souvenir hunters targeting eagle feathers in Utah are also subject to more stringent federal laws protecting the national symbol that preclude individuals from taking eagles or their feathers. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prohibits anyone from taking any part of a bald or golden eagle without a license from the Secretary of the Interior. The penalty for violating this law is a fine of up to $100,000 (double for organizations), imprisonment for one year, or both for a first offense. A second violation of the act elevates the crime to felony status.

Bald and golden eagles are the only eagle species found in the United States.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act precludes buying and selling eagle feathers among treaty signatories including Great Britain, Canada, Mexico, Russia and Japan.

Native Americans have long used eagle feathers in healing, naming and marriage ceremonies. To meet the Native American demand for eagle feathers while maintaining protection for the birds, the U.S. government established the National Eagle Repository in the 1970s. Native Americans seeking eagle feathers are now required to obtain them exclusively from the repository. The repository is a warehouse for the approximately 1,000 carcasses found by wildlife personnel throughout the country each year. It collects many eagles that have been electrocuted or run over by cars.

Eagles and eagle parts from the National Eagle repository are available only to enrolled members of Native American tribes. The waiting list contains about 5,000 names; the wait to receive eagle feathers or other eagle parts is about three and a half years. Eagle feathers received from the repository may not be sold or given away to non-Native Americans.

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