WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department said Friday it is going to allow members of federally recognized American Indian tribes to possess eagle feathers, although that's a federal crime.
This is a significant religious and cultural issue for many tribes, who were consulted in advance about the policy the department announced.
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and other federal wildlife laws criminalize the killing of eagles, which are listed as either endangered or threatened, and possession of feathers and bird parts, but the Constitution and federal laws also give tribes local sovereignty for self-government.
Under the new Justice Department policy, tribal members will not be prosecuted for wearing or carrying federally protected birds, bird feathers or parts. They also may pick up feathers found in the wild as long as they do not disturb federally protected birds or nests. Giving, lending or trading feathers or bird parts among tribe members, without any other compensation, also will be allowed.
While Justice did not previously have a written policy, the new directive is in line with long-standing practice by Justice prosecutors, U.S. attorneys and the Interior Department not to prosecute in such circumstances.
But the Justice Department will continue to prosecute tribe members and nonmembers alike for violating federal laws that prohibit killing eagles and other migratory birds or the buying or selling of the feathers or other bird parts.
In addition, members of federally recognized tribes are covered by the new Justice Department policy regardless of whether they have a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a memo to U.S. attorney offices around the country.
Holder said the new policy was issued to address concerns of tribal members who were unsure of how they might be affected by federal wildlife law enforcement efforts, particularly whether a permit would be required.
The Fish and Wildlife Service issues a very limited number of permits for American Indians to kill eagles in the wild or obtain feathers and carcasses of accidentally killed eagles from a federal repository.