Other Threatened Species Could Benefit : High Court Holds Indians May Not Kill Bald Eagles

Times Staff Writer

Despite treaties that grant Indians the exclusive right to hunt on reservations, Indians may not kill endangered bald eagles on their lands, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The justices reinstated the conviction of a Sioux Indian from South Dakota who said he shot down as many as 20 eagles a year along the Missouri River. They had flown over the reservation from a wildlife refuge.

“This is the first time the court has upheld a federal wildlife preservation law over Indian treaty rights,” said Michael Bean, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, adding that the decision may aid even more threatened species, such as the grizzly bear and the Florida panther.

Wary of Social Security Number


In a second reversal for Indians, the court also said that an Indian applicant for welfare may not refuse a Social Security number for his daughter, despite “a sincerely held religious belief” that such a number “robbed her spirit.”

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said the Indian parent “may no more prevail on his religious objection to the government’s use of Social Security numbers than he could on a sincere religious objection to the size and color of the government’s filing cabinets.”

The court conflict between bald eagles and Indians arose in 1981 when federal wildlife agents arrested 40 people, most of them Indians, for selling carcasses of bald eagles. Wildlife officials later told Congress that about 300 eagles were being killed each year on or near the Yankton Sioux reservation.

The bald eagle, which numbers between 6,000 and 13,000 in the lower 48 states, has been protected by Congress since 1962. The government created several special preserves for eagles, including one that borders the Yankton reservation.


Right to Hunt

Dwight Dion, who lives on the reservation, was convicted of killing--but not selling--four eagles. On appeal, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court threw out the conviction. Indians may not kill eagles to sell them, the appeals court said, but a 1858 treaty gave Indians the right to hunt and fish on the reservation “for non-commercial purposes.”

On Wednesday, the high court unanimously disagreed (U.S. vs. Dion, 85-246). Congressional action to protect the eagle “reflected an unmistakable and explicit legislative policy choice that Indian hunting of the bald eagle . . . is inconsistent with the need to preserve those species,” Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the court. “We therefore read that (1962) statute as having abrogated that (Indian) treaty right.”

A Seminole Indian in Florida recently was charged with killing one of the estimated 22 remaining Florida panthers, a case that has not yet been tried. Wildlife advocates in Washington who had closely followed the bald eagle case say they hope that it will be used to stop the killing of other endangered animals.


Decision Called Important

“This decision is very important because some of the best habitat for several endangered species is on Indian land,” said John Fitzgerald of the Defenders of Wildlife. “Indians have not lost their right to hunt but they have lost the right to hunt protected species.”

The Social Security case appeared to turn on the odd set of facts presented to the court.

Steven Roy, a member of the Abenaki tribe in Pennsylvania, wanted welfare payments and food stamps for his youngest child, Little Bird of the Snow, but said a computer number would interfere with the “uniqueness of her spirit.”


A district court ruled for Roy and his daughter, but the high court, on an 8-1 vote, reversed that judgment.

“The government’s use of a Social Security number for (this) child does not itself impair (the family’s) freedom to exercise their religion,” Burger wrote. Only Justice Byron R. White dissented in the case (Bowen vs. Roy, 84-780).