updated 11/11/2006 12:17:20 AM ET 2006-11-11T05:17:20

Federal prosecutors are appealing a judge’s decision to dismiss a case against an American Indian who shot a bald eagle for use in a tribal religious ceremony.

U.S. Attorney Matt Mead filed notice Wednesday that he will ask a federal appeals court in Denver to overturn U.S. District Judge William F. Downes’ dismissal of a case against Winslow Friday, 22, a Northern Arapaho Indian who acknowledged shooting a bald eagle in March 2005.

Friday could have been sentenced to up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine if convicted.

Eagle feathers are a key element of ceremonies of the Northern Arapaho and many other tribes. Downes said in his ruling last month that the government’s actions have shown “callous indifference” to American Indian religious beliefs.

Friday’s lawyers argued that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service generally refuses to grant permits allowing tribal members to kill bald eagles, even though federal regulations say such permits should be available.

“It is clear to this court that the government has no intention of accommodating the religious beliefs of Native Americans except on its own terms and in its own good time,” Downes wrote.

Friday said in a telephone interview that other Indians complain that a federal repository that dispenses eagles killed by cars or power lines works too slowly and sometimes provides remains of poor quality. The judge said Friday’s tribe also argued that such birds are not considered “clean” for ceremonies, and that the hunting of a bald eagle is in itself a religious act.

“The way it was told to me, the eagle takes the prayers that we have here, takes them up to the creator,” Friday said. “That’s one main reason that we believe in it so much, it does that. It’s an offering — you want it to be nice.”

Large waiting list
More than 5,000 American Indians are on a waiting list to receive eagles from the National Eagle Repository in Colorado, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife papers filed in Friday’s case. The agency gets only about 1,000 dead eagles per year, meaning applicants can expect to wait about 3½ years for an entire carcass to be sent to them, according to the court documents.

About 7,700 nesting pairs of bald eagles live in the lower 48 states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates. The species was reclassified from endangered to threatened in 1995.

Robert Rogers, Friday’s attorney, said he doesn’t think the ruling will allow American Indians to declare open season on the birds, but that the case highlighted problems they were having obtaining permits.

“If a person did not try to work with this permitting process that has now been outed, I think he might not succeed in this motion, and he would probably be convicted for doing the same thing,” Rogers said.

Attempts to reach Mead on Thursday and Friday were unsuccessful.

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