The US Fish and Wildlife Service has taken the unusual step of issuing a permit allowing an American Indian tribe to kill two bald eagles for religious purposes. The agency's decision comes after the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming filed a federal lawsuit last year contending the refusal to issue such permits violates tribal members' religious freedom. The government keeps eagle feathers and body parts in a federal repository, and thousands of American Indians apply for them for use in religious ceremonies; but permits allowing the killing of bald eagles are exceedingly rare, according to both tribal and legal experts on the matter.
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, and federal law prohibits the killing of bald eagles, the national bird, in almost all cases. It is unclear whether issuing the permit will prompt the tribe to drop its lawsuit. (Read more bald eagle stories.)