Dennis Wiist stands hunched over a bald eagle, its majestic wings spread out across a stainless-steel table. Wearing white disposable coveralls, blue latex gloves and a facemask, the wildlife specialist examines the bird’s wingspan, running his fingers between each wing feather to count them. Turning the bird face up, he notices a trickle of blood coming from one of its nostrils. “It looks like this one may have flown into something,” he says.
Wiist jots down a couple of notes before checking the bird's talons and tail feathers for wounds or fractures. All told, the examination takes about 15 minutes. Afterwards, he gingerly places the carcass in a plastic bag and sets it inside a walk-in freezer, where it will be boxed and shipped off from the National Eagle Repository, the only facility of its kind in the United States.
Wiist’s job is a cross between a mortician and a medical examiner. “I get to observe eagles in a way that very few people ever get to do,” he says. But unlike morticians, who prepare corpses for wakes and burials, Wiist is readying the eagles for another purpose: to be used by Native Americans for religious and cultural purposes. The National Eagle Repository, which is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is meant to “provide a central location for the receipt, storage and distribution of bald and golden eagles found dead and their parts throughout the United States,” according to its website.
By federal law, it’s illegal to possess, use or sell eagle feathers—a policy that is meant to deter hunters from poaching wild eagles for their feathers or body parts. A violation can result in a fine of up to $200,000, one year of imprisonment, or both.
However, the law, which is part of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act, stipulates that Native Americans who are members of federally recognized tribes can obtain a permit under the Federally Recognized Tribal List Act of 1994 to gain access to golden eagles and bald eagles. The majestic avians have long held a significant role among Native Americans, who use the feathers in religious and cultural ceremonies.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the repository "in recognition of the significance of these feathers to Native Americans." In 1994, after meeting with 300 tribal leaders, President Bill Clinton signed an executive memorandum that required all federal agencies send deceased eagles to the repository. The following year, it was moved from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensic Laboratory in Oregon to its current home within the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, a suburb of Denver.
Wiist has been examining deceased eagles for the past 21 years. After he examines them, he prepares them to be boxed and shipped across the country to tribal members who will then use the feathers and other parts to create intricate headdresses, dance shawls and other pieces for religious and cultural ceremonies. Every year, each tribal member over the age of 18 can apply to receive up to one whole golden or bald eagle, or various pieces that are equivalent to what one single eagle would contain, such as a pair of wings, a tail, a pair of talons, a head or a trunk.
“Occasionally, there is an applicant who is especially grateful, and seems quite sincere about what they are doing,” Wiist says. “It really touches some people's hearts."
Geoffrey M. Standing Bear, principal chief of the Osage Nation, first learned about the repository when he was in his 20s. Using eagle parts in ceremonies is a long held tradition among his people. Not only are the feathers worn during ceremonies, but they’re also used on a daily basis to bless oneself or others. “My elders once told me to look at [an eagle’s wing] like the Catholics do a crucifix,” he says. “I bless myself every morning and say a prayer with it.”
Back then, Standing Bear found himself short on feathers to pass down to his younger relatives. So he connected with tribal artisans, who pointed him toward the repository.
According to Standing Bear, Native Americans believe that the eagle is closer to God than humans are. “The eagle flies above us and has been here longer than we have and knows God better than we do,” he says. “It has holy powers that we can draw from by respectful use of its feathers [and other body parts]. We show our respect and distill blessings to another person by taking the feathers and touching them on the head and on the heart and on the hands to bless their minds, their emotions and their experiences in life.”
Tink Tinker, also a member of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, agrees. “The eagle is one of our closest relatives,” he says. “We believe that all of our relatives have distinct energy or power attached to them, and we use the eagle for its powers to help with healing and to give people strength, courage, wisdom and generosity. We use [the feathers] ceremonially to bring the intrinsic energy of the eagle into the ceremony. They’re not just symbols, they have actual power that relates closely to the Indian people.”
Tinker, who is a professor of American Indian cultures and religious traditions at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, says that he and his relatives have been sending applications through the repository for decades. He received his last shipment of feathers on behalf of his tribe about a year ago, which he divided among several relatives.
Tinker says that he has known about the repository since he was a child, and that its existence is passed on by word of mouth. But the number of requests has increased dramatically since Tinker was young. For example, ten years ago, in 1996, the repository received around 1,300 eagles and fulfilled approximately 2,400 orders. In 2015, the repository received around 3,500 eagles with a fulfillment rate of approximately 4,500 orders, according to Schaefer. Given that kind of demand, it’s not uncommon for applicants to wait up to two years for their requests to be fulfilled.
“I’m very liberal in [approving the applications] because I want all of our people to practice our traditional culture and religion, and eagles are critical to those practices," says Standing Bear, who is responsible for approving all applications from his tribe before they’re sent to the repository. "Feathers are handed down from generation to generation, but as families grow, there’s a shortage.” When asked about the delay, he adds: “It is what it is. We’re just grateful to get what we can."
There are only a handful of full-time employees at the repository, and Wiist is often the only one processing the eagles. It’s not uncommon for him to have about a half-dozen carcasses resting on shelves inside the laboratory awaiting examination. “The better the condition the birds come in, the faster the processing is,” he says. “Some of them arrive in pretty bad shape.”
Over the years, he’s seen eagles die due to numerous causes, including crashing into telephone poles, hit by cars, lead poisoning and being caught in hunting traps. It’s the responsibility of local state wildlife agencies and special agents working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to alert the repository of the death and include coordinates of where the bodies were found.
Native Americans aren’t the only ones who benefit from the work done at the repository. In a fortuitous twist, scientists have also been able to obtain the samples for work on eagle conservation.
In 2014, Gary Roemer, a professor in the department of fish, wildlife and conservation ecology at New Mexico State University, was investigating how deadly wind turbines could be for golden eagles. Roemer needed eagle samples to study, so he reached out to the repository. Ever since then, Wiist has been sending Roemer tissue samples, feathers and details of the demise of some of the birds that pass through the repository. (The government issued Roemer, who is working in tandem with a team of researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, special permits that allow them to handle and study the parts, as well as tag eagles out in the wild.)
Wind turbines caused the demise of nearly 600,000 birds in 2012, which included golden eagles and migratory songbirds, according to the American Bird Conservancy. “The USFWS is studying the stability of the golden eagle population and how much of a mortality rate is allowed before there’s a fallout of the population,” says Roemer, in reference to research done by one fellow researcher, Brian Millsap of the USFWS. “They're trying to work with wind-energy companies to come up with a strategy that will lessen the impact of eagle mortalities caused by wind turbines. Deaths will happen, so the question is how many eagles can be killed in a given year before there’s a population decline, and can those deaths be mitigated through other means, such as reducing electrocutions by retrofitting power lines.”
And it's vital that we assess the impacts of wind turbines sooner rather than later: By 2030, the number of turbines in the United States will increase ten-fold and could account for the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2 million birds each year, according to the conservancy.
Eagles move widely, meaning that wind turbines could spell trouble for eagle populations nationwide, Roemer adds. “For example, we know that golden eagles tagged in Denali National Park often winter in southern New Mexico and West Texas,” he says. “So, something like a wind turbine could be influencing breeding populations from several areas across the continent, not just within the area where the wind turbine is sited. Understanding eagle movements and genetic structure will help us better manage the continental population.”
Although Roemer is quick to point out that wind turbines are a step in the right direction to increase clean energy, “they’re also not benign, so we’re trying to find ways to at least mitigate their impact.” Some of the ideas that the researchers have considered include placing turbines farther away from flyway zones and putting money into a fund to help increase the visibility of power lines (which are also the cause of many a bird’s demise).
The repository's samples have been crucial to Roemer's work. Last year his team released a status report of the project, explaining the importance of the tissue and feather database they are setting up using the samples. They've also been studying golden eagle genetics. “We have to understand eagle biology better to come up with a sustainable approach to protect them,” he says.
Meanwhile, back at the repository, Wiist carefully selects feathers and takes small tissue samples of some of the golden eagles that pass through his lab, packing them up in boxes. Some he will mail to tribes for traditional uses, while others will go to New Mexico to be examined for their genetic structure. Both, in their own way, help support the continued appreciation of these iconic American species.