Bald eagles and golden eagles are some of the most protected animals in the United States. Under federal law, they are illegal to own, shoot or even touch.
But like all living creatures, they eventually die, and it’s up to Wildlife Repository Specialist Dennis Wiist to help make sure they’re honored even in death.
He often has a hard time explaining his job to others. "I don't volunteer it too much because then you've got a lot to explain,” Wiist said. Inside a non-descript building, he works, handling almost every dead eagle found across the country. “They collided with some sort of line or power line and broke a wing. A lot of them get hit by a car. A lot of them are electrocuted. That's some of the basic causes."
Wearing a mask and gloves, he pulls out an eagle from a black bag and begins counting. For 19 years, Wiist has been counting, because every eagle should have 10 feathers per wing and another 12 on the tail, and they can be used for a very special reason. "If [Native Americans are] making a bustle or a headdress or something, we'll want to make sure all the feathers are there and in reasonable shape," said Wiist.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Eagle Repository in Denver has collected eagles since the 1970s. "All over there is a need for eagle feathers for religious pursuits. There's 566 federally recognized tribes in this country and they're everywhere from Maine to California,” Special Agent in Charge Steve Oberholtzer explained to the News4 I-Team. "I can't overemphasize how important eagles and eagle feathers are to some Native Americans for their religious pursuit. For some, it is central to their religion and their culture and their well-being."
Oberholtzer said they examine each animal, looking for broken bones or singed feathers. Sometimes they replace damaged feathers on the bird. According to Oberholtzer, “It's on a strictly first-come, first-serve basis. Supply has not kept up with demand. Parts that aren't commonly sought, like talons or eagle heads for some type of religious staff, the wait time could be 30 days. Say you're ordering 20 feathers or 10 feathers, the wait times can be a few months for them. Immature golden eagles with the black and white tail fathers are the most sought after eagle here by far. The wait times are fairly long for them, in excess of four year sometimes."
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Workers at the facility do not clean or taxidermy the animals. Instead, they track and tag each bird before shipping it off to the next name on the list. "We really don't want to see eagles wasted. They're a very limited and valuable and important resource to those people. So we want to make sure they get them," Oberholtzer said.
Inside the lab, Wiist does get some help from interns and volunteers. But at last count, almost 42,000, he's touched nearly every eagle that's come through this facility. "Just knowing you're doing something that means something to somebody means a lot," said Wiist.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife says it is illegal, and potentially dangerous, to touch a dead eagle if you find one. Instead, they want you to call your state conservation office or U.S. Fish and Wildlife to collect the bird so they can figure out how it died and make sure it goes to the repository in Denver.