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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (Reuters) - A wildlife specialist splays the wings of a dead golden eagle shipped in from New Mexico and is pleased by what he sees.
"This one is an awfully good bird," Dennis Wiist of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says. "There's not too much damage, which is extremely rare."
Wiist will bag the eagle, freeze it and then have it delivered to a waiting Native American Indian tribe.
Eagles are sacrosanct for many tribes, and Wiist and his colleagues at the National Eagle Repository provide them with feathers, wings and talons - and in some cases whole carcasses - for religious rituals. But the Indians' demand outstrips the repository's supply.
Each year the repository receives about 2,300 dead bald and golden eagles, gathered by wildlife agents and others. But it gets more than 3,000 requests a year for whole birds or parts. There are some 6,000 entries on the waiting list.
"We just don't have the supply. Our inventory is stretched," said Bernadette Atencio, supervisor of the program for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The repository, located about 10 miles from downtown Denver, was established in the 1970s to meet the needs of American Indians but some don't want to rely on it because it can take so long to get a bird, even as the population of bald eagles has largely recovered from the threat of imminent extinction.
Quality is another issue. The eagles sent to the repository can arrive in poor shape, sometimes little more than carrion and not suitable for rituals.
On this particular day, Wiist removes a decayed golden eagle from a bag with a note attached saying the bird had been found in a water tank, which Wiist says rendered it useless.
An adult bald eagle he examines next is in relatively good condition, with just a fractured ankle and some head trauma. It qualifies as a complete bird.
The Northern Arapaho tribe of Wyoming requires a "religiously pure eagle" for its summer sun dance but spiritual leader Nelson White has said the repository has sent unsuitable decomposed eagles.
In November, the tribe filed a federal lawsuit saying its religious rights were being violated by the eagle regulations. Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a so-called "take" permit allowing the tribe to kill two bald eagles for spiritual purposes. The tribe has since said it wants to negotiate with the government to kill more.
The repository tries to meet the need for eagles, and Wiist evaluates 25 to 30 dead bald and golden eagles a day, holding their plumes to the light and meticulously inspecting them from head to talon, jotting down notes on each raptor's overall condition.
Eagle carcasses waiting to be shipped hang on racks in a walk-in freezer adjacent to Wiist's work station. Bags of usable feathers line the walls.
"I always check the wing bones to see if they're broken or damaged," Wiist said. "Some (Indians) use the wing bones for whistles."
Micah Loma'omvaya, a Hopi anthropologist who works for the tribal government in Arizona, said his people see the eagle as a benevolent being that allows them to communicate with other deities. It also represents their ancestors' spirits, he said.
"Eagles are integral to everything we do," Loma'omvaya said. "Not just for ceremonies, but offerings with eagle feathers are made for fertility, rain, hunting - everything good in life."
Loma'omvaya, who says his people have used feathers ceremoniously since "time immemorial," said repository birds sometimes did arrive in rough condition but that his overall experience had been positive.
He said that, while Hopis are allowed permits to "take" live golden eagles, not having items from the repository would limit his ability to participate in certain cultural events.
U.S. eagle populations once numbered in the hundreds of thousands but were decimated by encroaching human development, unfettered hunting and the pesticide DDT. The bald eagle, the national bird of the United States, dwindled to a mere 400 breeding pairs by the early 1960s.
The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, amended in 1962 to include golden eagles, was enacted by Congress to save them from extinction. Since federal protections were imposed to protect bald eagles, their population has soared to some 9,000 pairs, prompting their removal from endangered and threatened lists in 2007.
Other federal laws still make it mostly illegal to kill eagles, and it is also illegal for anyone to possess eagle parts without a permit, Native American or otherwise.
Meanwhile, some animal-rights groups are unhappy that the Northern Arapaho were granted the kill permit. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said allowing the killing of bald eagles was "unsettling" and could lead to a flurry of kill permit applications.
Peter Reshetniak, director of the Colorado-based Raptor Education Foundation, denounced last month's eagle killings as a "barbaric act" and said tribes could use molted feathers from live eagles in captivity.
Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Cynthia Johnston