In December of 2019, Troy Fairbanks and his son, Majestic Fairbanks, pleaded guilty to charges brought against them by the Federal Government. The Fairbanks duo was accused of illegally trafficking the body parts of bald and golden eagles. The case implicated dozens of others and took undercover investigators two years to build.
The operation, dubbed Project Dakota Flyer, offered the world a tiny glimpse into the bizarre and often surreal dead eagle trade, where two sides wage an unseen war over the decaying remains of the most protected animals in the United States.
In the United States, the bald eagle is a symbol of freedom, power, and beauty. Its image adorns currency and is treated with the same reverence as past presidents and other figures of great historical importance. The eagle is the centerpiece of the U.S. Coat of Arms, as well as the Presidential Seal.
In the animal kingdom, eagles are treated with similar respect. Their keen eyesight, swift movement, and deadly talons make them apex predators. They’re the most iconic of the raptors, the living fighter jets of the skies, and a perfect mascot for a country with a raging military-industrial complex.
Photo by Harald Hofer on Unsplash
When alive, they’re admired, honored, and above all, protected. The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 — expanded to include golden eagles in 1962 — prohibits the killing, taking, trading, and possession of eagles dead or alive without a permit that is virtually impossible to obtain. The simple act of taking a bald or golden eagle feather off the ground without the proper documentation is a federal crime punishable by a prison term and a fine of up to $5,000 for a first offense. More serious offenses, including the live capture or killing of an eagle, can result in felony convictions, multi-year prison sentences, and fines as high as $500,000.
In death, however, eagle bodies become a commodity that is often illegally bought, sold, traded, and hoarded. Feathers, wings, feet, and heads become their own form of currency, highly sought-after by Native Americans whose tribes held the birds in high esteem long before Europeans arrived on the shores. Feathers and body parts are used in religious and cultural ceremonies but demand far outweighs supply, creating a rift that is easily exploited.
The Law of the Land
April 28, 1994: After meeting with Native American tribal representatives, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order demanding that the Federal Government make it easier for recognized Native American tribes to legally obtain remains of bald and golden eagles.
“Eagle feathers hold a sacred place in Native American culture and religious practices,” the order reads. “Because of the feathers’ significance to Native American heritage and consistent with due respect for the government-to-government relationship between the Federal and Native American tribal governments, this Administration has undertaken policy and procedural changes to facilitate the collection and distribution of scarce eagle bodies and parts for this purpose.”
President Bill Clinton pledges to make eagle parts easier to obtain for Native American tribes.
The order was broad in scope, adding an item to the lengthy to-do list of every federal agency involved in land and wildlife management. The task: Find and secure the bodies of eagles that die anywhere in the United States and promptly ship them to a new National Eagle Repository in Colorado.
“As part of these efforts, agencies shall take steps to improve their collection and transfer of eagle carcasses and eagle body parts for Native American religious purposes,” the President’s order continues. “I, therefore, direct each agency responsible for managing Federal lands to diligently and expeditiously recover salvageable eagles found on lands under their jurisdiction and ensure that the eagles are promptly shipped to the National Eagle Repository.”
The order is as serious as it sounds; If an eagle dies in the United States, there’s only one place it should end up. It is also an impossible task that left plenty of room for a black market of eagle remains to boom.
An Almost-Final Resting Place
In a perfect world, every bald or golden eagle that dies in the United States would arrive at 6550 Gateway Road in Commerce City, Colorado. There, the small team at the National Eagle Repository receives, examines, processes, and distributes dead eagles and eagle parts. The facility takes delivery of thousands of eagle bodies every year, but it’s not enough to meet demand.
Photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
To request an eagle body, feathers, or specific parts from the repository, an applicant must be a member of a federally recognized Native American tribe. There are currently 573 tribes that qualify for federal recognition and approximately five million Native Americans in the U.S. that may be eligible to file a request with the repository. To say that wait times are significant would be a massive understatement.
Strict rules govern the types of requests that can be submitted. Tribe members can request whole birds or specific pieces such as wings or even heads, but a single request cannot include more body parts than would appear on an individual animal. A request for three eagle feet, for example, would be denied.
The National Eagle Repository’s reference chart for eagle feathers. Image credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The repository fills requests for both bald and golden eagle parts and each species is further separated into either “adult” or “immature” groupings. Of all the items that the repository handles, feathers of immature golden eagles are the most sought-after. The high-contrast feathers are dark at the tip and bright white at the base, making them particularly striking. They often adorn traditional tribal headwear and have been a favorite for generations.
Requests for a full bald eagle body currently take around two years for the repository to fill. By contrast, an adult golden eagle will take almost six years to receive from the date of request. The waitlist for immature golden eagles, on the other hand, stretches back to 2013.
The (Black) Market Has Spoken
It’s clear why black market eagle operations exist. Any industry — and “industry” is being used loosely here — that takes three-quarters of a decade to fill a request will inevitably spawn an illegal marketplace where criminals undercut delivery times for a price. Black market sellers may hold themselves up to appear legitimate despite the laws regarding the sale and possession of eagle remains being well-known, especially to tribal officials.
Bald eagle parts processed by the National Eagle Repository / Photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Fairbanks case is just the tip of a massive iceberg. Troy Fairbanks, himself a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, was potentially eligible to request eagle parts from the government as well as obtain them in the wild under specific circumstances. Selling those items, however, remains a crime regardless of one's heritage.
Bald eagles were removed from the threatened species list in 2007 thanks to conservation efforts, but poaching remains a major concern. A sting conducted in 2011 called Operation Rolling Thunder offered a hint as to the prices some are willing to pay for eagle remains. A single high-quality bald eagle feather fetched a sum of $500, while a separate carcass sold for $1,000. A dozen people were convicted over the course of two years following the operation, with participants receiving an average of over four months in prison.
Meanwhile, some Native American tribes have come up with their own ways of obtaining eagle feathers legally. Injured or sick eagles that cannot return to the wild have found homes at tribal aviaries where they are cared for and protected. Each year, the eagles molt and release their prized feathers. In the hands of recognized tribes, these feathers are perfectly legal, but even this hasn’t quelled the seemingly insatiable demand for eagle parts.
Eagles are found dead of gunshot wounds more often than you might think. The large, powerful birds may initially survive an attack from a poacher only to die after escaping to safety. Identifying the scale of the poaching problem is difficult, as successful poaching attempts allow criminals to recover the bird’s body and leave little evidence behind.
Protected, Respected, Forgotten
Eagles are protected by no fewer than three sets of strict laws. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and The Lacey Act have all helped ensure that populations of the raptors remain relatively stable, at least for now. How long that will last is anyone’s guess.
The wait times for legal eagle parts from the repository seem to be growing, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. Native Americans revere the birds, but that love has had unintended consequences, opening the door for poachers to demand high prices for birds killed illegally.
Native Americans have a long and painful history of conflict with the government. There’s something tragically fitting about the fact that generations after their land was invaded by early settlers, the Federal Government now distributes the lifeless remains of its own national mascot to Native Americans as a tacit admission that the mighty birds have always been more important to them.
The repository was (and still is) an attempt to do “the right thing,” but it’s not enough. Farming the birds to curb demand is out of the question, and there are only so many dead eagles in the wild to go around. This story, unfortunately, doesn’t have a happy ending, and that’s because it’s far from over. In the United States, the image of the eagle is inescapable. Let’s hope the eagles themselves can escape the lust for their remains.
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