Washington, DC.. Overriding objections from top National Park Service (NPS) officials, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has ordered promulgation of a special rule to allow removal of golden eaglets from a national monument in Arizona, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This unprecedented special order, ending the status of national parks as wildlife sanctuaries, is being held for release in mid-November, after the presidential election.
The special order would allow the Hopi tribe to take golden eagles from the Wupatki National Monument for purposes of ritual sacrifice. While the wording of the order is limited to Wupatki, the rationale cited in the proposed rule would justify opening any unit of the National Park System to hunting by Native Americans.
"This lame duck move by Secretary Babbitt is bad policy done badly," stated Frank Buono, a PEER Director and former assistant superintendent at Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve. "A policy change of this magnitude should be submitted to Congress for open debate rather than accomplished through administrative subterfuge."
Currently, wildlife may be hunted or taken from national parks only where specifically authorized by law or treaty. Consequently, national parks have repeatedly rejected attempts by tribes to assert "traditional" hunting rights. In 1999, after the Wupatki National Monument refused a request from the Hopi tribe to take golden eaglets and that refusal was sustained by all levels of the agency, including the NPS Director, Secretary Babbitt voided the park's refusal and announced his intention to develop a new policy to accommodate Native American "take" of non-endangered species. Secretary Babbitt first tried to pressure agency lawyers to produce an opinion contradicting the Park Service's long-standing position that killing or capturing wildlife in the parks violates the 1916 Organic Act. When that effort failed, Babbitt ordered the issuance of a special rule for Wupatki.
Park Service employees, working through PEER, note three major problems with the proposed rule:
* Internal objections have been stifled and NPS professionals have been ordered to prepare an incomplete environmental assessment which omits consideration of effects on eagle populations or any analysis of possible implications for other parks. This departmentally- constrained assessment, slated for the end of October, violates National Environmental Policy Act requirements governing how such studies are supposed to be conducted;
* The rule's effects would reach far beyond Wupatki. According to a recent PEER survey, Native American groups are seeking to hunt bighorn sheep in Grand Canyon, caribou at Denali, bison at Yellowstone, mountain goats at North Cascades, elk at Olympic and other national parks as well as golden eagles and red-tailed hawks in a number of national monuments in the Southwest. More than a third (16 out of 42) of national parks surveyed by PEER reported requests from affiliated tribes to hunt, trap or otherwise collect animals from the park. Several of the larger parks report increasingly insistent demands from multiple tribal groups for broad hunting rights; and
* The Department of Interior is refusing to release population data concerning golden eagles in the Southwest -- data requested by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act more than a year ago.
"One of America's best contributions to conservation, national parks have served as wildlife sanctuaries since Congress first banned the taking of animals from Yellowstone in 1894," Buono concluded. "This rule proposes to alter the very wildlife protection mission of the entire National Park Service; a momentous step that should not be unilaterally taken by an Interior Secretary in his last few weeks of office."