This quick summary examines the historical reasons behind the passage of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. It also lists the relevant provisions of the Act, including what actions violate the Act and the potential penalties violators face, as well as what controversies the Act has created. At the bottom of the document are links to more detailed analyses of the Act.
In 1940, Congress passed a law to protect our national symbol, the Bald Eagle. This act, called the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, made it illegal to possess, sell, hunt, or even offer to sell, hunt or possess bald eagles. This includes not only living eagles, but also their feathers, nests, eggs, or body parts. The act allows a person to possess or transport eagles or eagle parts obtained before the act was established (1940). A farmer or rancher who leases land from the United States for grazing livestock can also lose his or her lease with the government.
Under the Act, a person can face criminal prosecution or a civil penalty (a fine). The act was amended, or changed, in 1972 to increase the penalty a person will face for violating the Act. Under the criminal penalty portion, a person convicted of violating the Act can be fined up to $5,000 or imprisoned up to a year, or both can occur. If a person is convicted for two violations under the act, he or she can face an enhanced penalty of up to $10,000 or imprisonment up to two years, or both. If a person is convicted, up to $2,500 will be paid to the person who gave the information that led to the conviction.
A Department of the Interior employee who is authorized to do so may arrest anyone who is seen violating the Act without a warrant. Any eagles or eagle parts that are seized as the result of arrest will be forfeited, or taken, by the government. This also includes anything used to possess or trap the birds, including vehicles used in the process.
The act was amended in 1962 to include the related species of golden eagle. This was done in part to protect the dwindling population of golden eagles as well as to protect the bald eagle itself, since bald and golden eagles are difficult to distinguish in the wild. In addition to adding the golden eagle, Congress also created an exception in the statute to allow people to obtain eagles or their parts for zoos, exhibitions or Native American religious purposes. A person must first apply for a permit before permission will be given to possess eagle parts. This last part has created the most controversy. The eagle is a central figure in many Native American religions. As a result of this change, Native Americans now had to apply for a permit to obtain eagle parts or feathers to use in their religious rituals. Courts are now faced with deciding whether this violates a person’s free exercise of religion.