In an unusual chain of events, the Pueblo of Jemez, was granted a permit to kill one eagle on the Valles Caldera National Preserve, by the Director of the National Park Service in October 2023. Eagles frequently circle the meadows at the Valles Caldera.

The Valles Caldera National Preserve is prime eagle habitat. The Preserve has very large meadow areas with many prey species such as prairie dogs, gophers, squirrels, and small birds. Streams course through these meadows filled with numerous species of fish both native and introduced. Forest surrounding the meadows give cover for eagles for roosting and nesting.

Pueblo people have long hunted eagles. The hunt may be ceremonial purposes, and the birds and their feathers are considered important cultural items within their traditions. Before modern times, the Pueblo people hunted eagles by digging a pit, covering it with brush and placing a constrained rabbit on the top of the brush. A person inside the pit would wait for an eagle to come down to grab the rabbit and the person in the pit would clasp the eagle, pulling it into the pit.

Such eagle hunts have gone on for a long time. In modern times, the Pueblos may use other techniques to kill the eagle. How the eagle or eagles were killed in or near the Valles Caldera recently may never be known beyond the circle of people involved in the hunt.

For its part, the National Park Service responded to the request from Jemez Pueblo to kill an eagle inside the Preserve by writing up a National Environmental Policy Act document called an Environmental Assessment (EA) followed by a Finding of no Significant Impact (FONSI), for the hunt. The document was written quickly as the Pueblo said they needed to kill the eagle five weeks after it made its request to the NPS. Normally, an EA or FONSI or similar document is signed by the park superintendent or a person from the NPS Regional Office in Denver. In this case, the FONSI was signed by the Director of the National Park Service, Chuck Sams who is Native American from Oregon. Why the document went clear to the top of the agency may never be known outside of the halls of the Park Service. (Normally documents like these are signed at the park or regional level.)

Once those documents were in place, the Park produced a special use permit for the Pueblo to camp in the Preserve and kill one eagle.

The eagle hunt in the Valles Caldera set a new precedent for “taking” animals from a unit of the National Park system. Mike Murray of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks told the National Parks Traveler: “The NPS decision to allow the take of one eagle at Valles Caldera is precedent setting. To the best of my knowledge, this has never been allowed in any other park system unit.”

Federal law allows tribes to hunt in a unit of the National Park system, only if they have a treaty right to conduct such hunts. Jemez Pueblo has no treaty rights in the Valles Caldera.

The Valles Caldera has not been surveyed for eagles since 2017 so the National Park Service is not able to accurately or legally say if an eagle hunt would “impair” the eagle populations and at the Preserve.

Retired NPS official Bob Krumenaker told National Parks Traveler: “The rapid turnaround, lack of public review, lack of site-specific resource data, and even lack of consultation with other tribes is concerning. I have great respect for the people who had to make this decision, but I don’t see where we (the NPS) have the legal authority to do this.” He and other NPS officials and retirees worry that the eagle take in the Valles Caldera could set a precedent for similar hunts in other units of the National Park system.

Eagles Protected

Federal law protects both bald and golden eagles in the United States. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prohibit killing eagles with few exceptions. The Lacey Act also prohibits trade in eagle parts as does the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA). The Bald Eagle is protected under the Endangered Species Act, where it is listed as “threatened.”

But under the BGEPA there is an exception for tribal use of eagles for religious purposes. Tribal members can get a permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to take an eagle, but the demand for these permits is higher than the eagle populations outside of Alaska can probably sustain. There is a black market for eagles and eagle parts and people poach eagles to fill the demand for feathers and other parts.

Jemez Pueblo is one of 6 Pueblos near the Valles Caldera. Thirteen other Pueblos farther away also have prehistoric relationships to the Caldera. Whether members of these other communities will want to kill and eagle in the Caldera in the future, we don’t know.

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