DENVER -- Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt favors a policy change that would allow members of the Hopi tribe to remove golden eagles from a national monument in northern Arizona, a move that critics fear could open the door to hunting in national parks.
The issue at the Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff, Ariz., has been percolating since summer, when the Hopi requested permission to take eaglets for use in a religious ceremony. Taking or hunting of animals in national parks is prohibited, but Babbitt said in an interview that he favors allowing an exception in this case.
"We've had long internal discussions about this," Babbitt said. "My general view is that we should respect traditional religious uses on public lands by Native Americans to the extent that they do not jeopardize or threaten the extinction of a species. We need to examine these issues on a case-by-case, site-specific basis."
The controversy broadly pits freedom of religion against the long-standing mandate of the Park Service to protect wildlife on federal land. Conservation groups monitoring the issue are appalled by the precedent that could be set.
"It has the potential to unravel the parks system as a collection of animal sanctuaries. This strikes at the integrity of the parks system," said Frank Buono, a retired longtime Park Service administrator who wrote a legal analysis of the issue for the National Parks and Conservation Association.
Sam Henderson, park superintendent at Wupatki, said that after the issue arose, he and other park managers were inundated with requests from hunters to hunt the herds of elk, deer and moose that roam at many national parks.
The Internet, Henderson said, is crackling with speculation about the future for hunting in parks.
"I don't know how you stop it once it starts," Henderson said. "We have sensitivity to the Hopi culture, we understand why they want to do this, but the national park is not the appropriate place to gather the eagles."
The Hopi have been gathering eaglets in the area for centuries, and the land within the monument is recognized as the tribe's ancestral home. They also gather eagles on Navajo land.
Golden eagles are not endangered but are protected under a 1962 amendment to the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which makes it illegal to collect eagle feathers or parts. However, the Hopis are permitted to gather the eaglets under two acts of Congress.