July 5, 2000

Far from the ocean waters of the Pacific Northwest, where the Makah tribe is locked in a legal battle over the right to hunt gray whales, another front, perhaps more important, is opening in the debate over wildlife versus religious freedom.

Amid the mesas of northern Arizona, members of the Hopi tribe have asked the U.S. government for permission to kill young golden eagles taken from a nest in Wupatki National Monument for use in traditional ceremonies.

The decision could radically change the protected status of wildlife inside national parks. If the Interior Department grants the Hopis' request, dozens of tribes could ask to harvest wildlife such as bison, black bears, and birds of prey from inside parks for similar reasons.

The issue is so sensitive that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has personally asked the department's leading attorney to review the case and render a ruling soon. The Monitor has learned that the lawyer, John Leshy, is considering granting a broader exemption to tribes, enabling limited harvest of nonendangered animals and plants inside parks.

At the heart of the matter is the question of whether the right to practice Native American religion should take precedence over the role of parks as sanctuaries.

"This is a very complicated issue, and it needs to be treated extremely carefully," says David Simon, Southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. "One of the crucial questions is: Does the government consider the Hopi request at Wupatki an isolated case, or does it intend to open the gates for other tribes at other parks?"

Across the West, the U.S. government has tried to be sensitive to the needs of Native Americans, particularly in allowing the picking of plants at some parks and monuments. Congress has given Indians the right to gather pinyon nuts in New Mexico's El Mapais National Monument, for instance.

Indian traditionalists say that harvesting wildlife and plants is central to their beliefs and to the continuation of their culture. With the Hopi, the ceremony involving the eaglets eventually leads to the birds' death--with the feathers used later in prayer--but tribal officials say the rite is done responsibly.

"We'd be the last ones to do any harm to the larger eagle population," says Eugene Kaye, the Hopi chief of staff. "It's not that all Hopis go out and gather eaglets," he says. "Only certain clan members who possess the expertise can do it. It's something that's been practiced for centuries and centuries and centuries."

Unlike whales, golden eagles are not endangered, though they are protected. The Fish and Wildlife Service routinely grants tribes permission to kill golden eagles and hawks on many private and public lands, but the privilege has never been extended to national parks.

Hopi Tribal Council chairman Wayne Taylor Jr. argues that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and a recent executive order from President Clinton show a commitment to honor tribal requests on public lands. Further, he says, preventing the collection of eaglets would be a violation of the First Amendment right to religious expression.

"It's a tough issue," Mr. Babbitt told the Monitor in explaining why he asked Leshy to review the matter. "This isn't about sport hunting. This is about a deeply religious and sustainable take of eagles that has been going on for over a thousand years."

Although Park Service officials have been ordered not to talk publicly about the decision, personnel say there is deep concern. One worry is that the decision could start a slippery slope for future wildlife protection.

"There are a good number of the big parks that already have tribes requesting the right to hunt animals," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which last week completed a survey of national parks. "Parks are unaware and completely unprepared for a policy change."

Others say plenty of public land is available to tribes--places where the U.S. government has made it clear that limited, controlled harvest of natural resources is welcome. Parks, they argue, should be off limits.

"I am sympathetic to tribal needs, but those needs can be fulfilled without having to go into parks and take live animals," says Frank Buono, a retired Park Service manager who spent a quarter century with the agency.

Buono says that in many regions, national parks represent "refuges" free of human hunting, and, in turn, those populations serve an important function in bolstering the numbers of animals in adjacent wildlands.

In the Makah case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a scathing opinion in overturning the National Marine Fisheries Service decision to allow the tribe to harvest gray whales near Neah Bay, Wash. The court called the environmental review--which had suggested there would be no impact on the whale population--"demonstrably suspect."

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