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Wyoming tribe asks feds to drop appeal blocking the killing of eagles for religious purposes

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CHEYENNE, Wyoming — The Northern Arapaho Tribe is calling on the federal government to drop a legal appeal that's blocking the tribe from killing bald eagles for religious purposes on the central Wyoming reservation it shares with another tribe.

The federal government in June appealed this spring's decision by U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the religious rights of the Northern Arapaho by denying the tribe permission to kill bald eagles for its annual Sun Dance.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials had issued a permit to the Northern Arapaho Tribe in 2012 allowing tribal members to kill two bald eagles for the ceremony provided they could only be killed outside the boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The Northern Arapaho share the reservation with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, which has its own religious grounds for opposing the killing of eagles.

In his ruling this spring, Johnson sided with the Northern Arapaho and concluded it was wrong for the federal agency to specify that the permit excluded reservation lands.

Johnson ruled the First Amendment prohibited the federal government from burdening one American Indian tribe's exercise of its religious rights to benefit another tribe. He ordered the agency to reconsider the Northern Arapaho application.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's appeal of Johnson's ruling is pending in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver and the agency has just over a month left to file a brief laying out its arguments.

Dean B. Goggles, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, wrote last week to U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli asking him to drop the federal government's appeal on religious grounds.

Goggles stated in his letter that the tribe filed its lawsuit in part in response to the federal government's 2005 prosecution of Winslow Friday, a young tribal member who shot an eagle for use in the Sun Dance. Friday ultimately pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay a fine in tribal court.

"The Tribe needs to protect any Arapaho who is legitimately taking an eagle for religious ceremonial purposes," Goggles wrote.

"We are writing to ask that you withdraw your notice of appeal so that we may practice the traditions of our Tribe without fear of criminal prosecution," Goggles wrote.

Ivy Allen, tribal liaison with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Lakewood, Colorado, said Monday she couldn't comment on the tribe's request to drop the appeal because litigation is ongoing.

Former U.S. District Judge William Downes of Casper originally had 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. The federal appeals court later reinstated the charges against Friday.

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 maintains a stock of carcasses of eagles and other protected birds 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 have said it's unacceptable to them to use an eagle carcass from the federal repository for their Sun Dance.

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