ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - Ever wonder what happens to bald eagles when they die? Do laws prohibiting possession of bald eagles or bald eagle parts under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act still apply after death?

Absolutely.

According to John Paul, a biologist with the Installation Environment Division, deceased bald eagles are evaluated on site, then sent to the National Eagle Repository at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver, Colo.

From there, the eagle parts are distributed only to Native Americans enrolled in federally recognized tribes for use in religious and cultural ceremonies.

Paul said Native American tribes use bald eagle feathers not only for headdresses but to symbolize rites of passage for graduating high school seniors and for similar customs.

"While protected by these two acts, [the federal government] came up with a method to furnish talons and feathers, or complete birds only to Native Americans who use them for ceremonies and rituals," Paul said. "This has resulted in less need for eagles to be taken for that purpose and has satisfied a [cultural] demand; although there remains an even greater demand and a long waiting list."

In fact, Native Americans who wish to obtain bald or golden eagles or their parts must apply through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Migratory Bird Permit Office which services the applicant's state of residence.

Orders are filled on a first-come, first-served basis, with a waiting list of about 6,000 applicants for approximately 2,000 eagles the repository receives, on average, each year.

At Aberdeen Proving Ground, when an eagle death is reported, garrison environmentalists
are called in to gather the remains and determine the cause of death.

"If the cause is apparent, such as electrocution from power lines, no post mortem [exam] is required," Paul said, adding that he determines if a post mortems is needed. Veterinary pathologists perform the procedures and environmental specialist Lynda Hartzell packages and ships the remains.

"The birds are frozen hard and overnighted," she said. "It's unfortunate to find a dead eagle, but it's nice to know it will go to those who values and respect it as opposed to just the curious."

The National Eagle Repository is operated and managed under the Office of Law Enforcement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge serves as the central location for the receipt, storage, and distribution of Bald and Golden eagles that have been found dead.

According to the National Wildlife Refuge website, in 1963, only 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles existed in the entire lower 48 states. More than 9,700 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower
48 exist today, and that number is growing every day.

Bald eagles gained protection under the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1972. A 1962 amendment added protection specifically for the golden eagle, and in 2008, bald eagles in the Sonoran Desert of central Arizona were returned to the list of threatened wildlife.

In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, though it still remains protected under the two acts.

Page last updated Tue November 29th, 2011 at 00:00