Poaching Sheds Light on Market for Eagle Parts

An apparent increase in eagle poaching in the Northwest has drawn attention to the market for eagle feathers and talons — both legal and illegal.

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It was a series of startling discoveries on an Indian reservation in North Vancouver, British Columbia: the carcasses of some 50 eagles, their talons and tail feathers sliced off. The killings earlier this year sparked outrage and triggered a criminal investigation. So far no arrest have been made. But as Austin Jenkins reports from Seattle, Washington, the case has put a spotlight on the black market for eagle feathers, talons and other parts.

(Soundbite of bag being moved)

AUSTIN JENKINS reporting:

At his office near Bellingham, Washington, Special Agent Paul Weyland of the US Fish and Wildlife Service pulls a large plastic bag out of a freezer.

Mr. PAUL WEYLAND (Special Agent, US Fish and Wildlife Service): This is a bald eagle. I'm going to take it out of the bag here.

(Soundbite of bag being opened)

JENKINS: Weyland pulls back the plastic...

Mr. WEYLAND: I've got him double-wrapped.

JENKINS: ...revealing a perfectly intact, frozen juvenile bald eagle. This one was shot to death, probably by a thrill-seeking poacher.

Mr. WEYLAND: So these are the talons, and as you can see they're quite large. Oftentimes you'll find eagles that have been shot and these will be cut off right at the base. And they can be sold anywhere from 40 to maybe $200 for a pair.

JENKINS: It's not just the talons that are valuable; so are the tail feathers, wings, even the eagle head. Special Agent Weyland is part of the team investigating the mass killings of eagles in British Columbia earlier this year. He says the parts of a dead eagle can easily fetch a thousand dollars or more on a black market that stretches from western Canada to Florida. But what's driving this market?

Mr. WEYLAND: They're used in high-end art trade, I mean, artwork that's worth a $1/2 million. Devil worshippers use eagle heads, and so it's a very broad range.

JENKINS: A broad range that Weyland says also includes practitioners of some religions that borrow from Native American traditions and something that's a part of Native American tradition itself.

Mr. WEYLAND: Eagle parts are used at powwows, at Native America powwows, in their dances.

JENKINS: In fact, federal authorities say the lucrative Native American powwow circuit, often with casino-funded prize purses, is one of the key factors driving the black market.

(Soundbite of music)

JENKINS: At powwows like this one near Spokane, Washington, the costumes of the Native American dancers are resplendent with dozens of eagle feathers. Dancers are judged on how they move and on these colorful outfits.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

JENKINS: Outside is dancer Edwin Little Plume, a Blackfeet Indian from Montana. He wears a men's traditional warrior outfit which includes a giant eagle feather headdress and bustle. In his hand, he holds a staff capped with the head of a golden eagle. Little Plume explains in the Native American tradition, the eagle is sacred.

Mr. EDWIN LITTLE PLUME (Blackfoot Indian): We're trying to hang on to our religion to the best that we can. The eagle feather does play a big part in our religion.

JENKINS: But he calls the black market for eagle feathers and parts highly disrespectful to their beliefs.

Mr. LITTLE PLUME: The black market does not play any part in our religion. I mean, it would be taboo, you know, to us.

JENKINS: Instead, he says, there is a legal market for eagle feathers and parts. Card-carrying members of federally recognized Native American tribes can apply for feathers, even entire birds, through the National Eagle Repository, a clearinghouse for dead eagles found in the wild. But there's a problem.

Ms. BERNADETTE ATENCIO (Manager, National Eagle Repository): The demand is very intense. The demand far outweighs our supply.

JENKINS: Bernadette Atencio managed the eagle repository, which is located in Denver, Colorado. She says currently there are 3,000 people on a waiting list and a three-year waiting period to receive a whole eagle.

Ms. ATENCIO: With the inventory that we're receiving per year, we're only able to reach about a quarter of the requests that are pending.

JENKINS: It's in this `demand-exceeds-supply' climate that the black market thrives. The trouble is cracking eagle trafficking cases is difficult. Wildlife cops are few and far between, and the bad guys operate deep underground. For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins in Seattle, Washington.

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