The black market is fueling the killings of eagles in British Columbia.
NORTH VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Amy Marie George just couldn't catch her breath.
She had walked this short trail near her house hundreds of times, but on this afternoon in February she had to send her grandchildren ahead to get an old asthma inhaler she hadn't used in more than a year.
"I heard my granddaughter say, 'There's an eagle here,"' recalled George, an elder with the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. "I got such a bad feeling."
Then her grandson Jonas called out. "There's one here!
"And another one here!"
In all, there were 14 dead eagles strewn about the dirt. And it was no accident.
George and her grandchildren had stumbled upon evidence of an international black market, one that fuels the illegal slaughter of an estimated 500 eagles each year in southwest British Columbia alone, and an unknown number in Washington state.
Staggering death count
Their discovery brought to at least 50 the total number of dead eagles found between February and March in and around the Tsleil-Wautuths' tiny Indian reserve.
The black market begins around the salmon runs, where gorging eagles are easy prey for poachers; it arrives in the United States tucked in the suitcases of smugglers; and it fans out across America, where investigators sometimes refer to eagles as "flying $1,000 bills."
Because of the large number of eagles in British Columbia, Washington state has been a key entry point for smugglers.
According to wildlife officials in Canada and the United States, the parts find their way to uses ranging from high-end artwork to Wiccan ceremonies. But officials say the biggest demand is at American Indian powwows, where feathered regalia can help competitive dancers win thousands of dollars in prizes.
To George, it was simple.
"This," she said, "is murder."
But catching the culprits has proven to be no easy task.
Paul Weyland likes to keep a low profile. As a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent who investigates organized poaching rings, he works in an unmarked office building in a bland business strip on the outskirts of Bellingham, Wash.
Official correspondence carries a P.O. Box address, rather than the street address, ever since Weyland got a vaguely threatening letter from a disgruntled hunter. He carries a holstered gun even though much of his work is at a desk.
For the past few months, Weyland has been investigating possible stateside links to the B.C. eagle case.
U.S. law prohibits killing eagles, or possessing any eagle part -- even just a feather -- without a permit. Selling them is also prohibited, as is transporting them across the border. Canadian law is similar, but some important differences may make Weyland the key to bringing the B.C. eagle killers to justice.
Canadian officials are unsure whether a law that protects the right of First Nations people to harvest wildlife that they've traditionally harvested can be applied to eagles. As a result, they're not even certain how they would charge a suspect in the eagle-slaying case.
For many Indians, these grand birds are sacred because they fly high and carry messages to the Creator. Some compare the symbolic importance of the eagle in Indian religions to the cross in Christianity.
Their sacred status means their parts are often needed for religious ceremonies. Indians traditionally killed the birds sparingly, accompanied by prayer and thanks and elaborate rituals. And for years, this wasn't a problem. Eagles were plentiful.
But as the continent was developed, the great bird's population dwindled. Pesticides were the main culprit, and at one point, the birds nearly disappeared from the lower 48 states.
In 1940, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Act to outlaw the killing, possession or sale of eagles. Later, Congress added golden eagles to the act.
The population has made a comeback, with about 6,000 nesting pairs counted in the lower 48 in 2000, although they are still on the list of threatened species.
American Indians, however, were given some leeway under the act: They may possess eagle parts that have been handed down through the generations, and they may get new eagles through a federal repository, where dead eagles from zoos or those found in the wild are sent for distribution to tribes.
There's just one problem: There are thousands of American Indians who want parts, but not enough repository eagles to go around. Sometimes it takes as long as four years to get a bird.
Federal judges, ruling in cases where American Indians used their religion as a justification for eagle offenses, have found the repository system "utterly offensive and ultimately ineffectual."
Waiting lists that essentially prevent American Indians from getting religious objects, they have repeatedly ruled, substantially interfere with their religious rights.