Two members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation were sentenced on Thursday for possessing and selling parts from protected wildlife.
Terry Daniels and her brother Harlin were fined a combined $8,500 — $7,000 and $1,500, respectively — for illegally trafficking in bones, feathers and talons of bald eagles, golden eagles and great grey owls.
Some were included in crafts and traditional native dress, but whole carcasses were also found.
The birds are protected as non-game, sensitive species in Alberta. Crown prosecutor Mac Vomberg says wildlife need to be protected.
"I hope the precedent that it sets is to discourage other people from poaching any form of restricted or threatened wildlife," he said.
Fish and Wildlife officers seized dozens of illegal items from the siblings’ homes at the conclusion of a two-year undercover operation in 2011, and each pleaded guilty to the charges.
Speaking after the sentencing hearing, Harlin said the fines were much higher than he anticipated.
"They're expensive, it will take us a while to come up with that amount of money," he said
Inspection of homes to follow
The siblings were also ordered to report to Fish and Wildlife officials and allow inspections of their homes.
Government biologist Gordon Court testified during the court proceedings that the defendants hunted as many as 30 bald eagles from a total provincial population of only 500, and 20 golden eagles from a pool of only 100.
"I think if you were to continue to harvest at those levels I think you would probably see a decline in the long-term,” he said.
Eagle feathers are used by aboriginal peoples — including Terry and Harlin's parents — for spiritual and religious purposes.
Their mother, Grace Daniels, is a medicine woman who comes from a long line of traditional practices.
She testified, "Without the eagle, our people will disappear."
But authorities became worried after eagle feathers, bones and talons went up for sale at a Saddle Lake Pow Wow in 2011.
The confiscated items will now be distributed to First Nations members in the province through a government program for use in ceremonies.
Spiritual, cultural needs
Insp. Richard Lyons, with Alberta Fish and Wildlife, says the government program distributing eagle feathers has a specific goal.
"The purpose of the program isn't so much to keep things fair but it's to assist with a recognized need for constitutionally protected aboriginal rights — individuals who legitimately need them for the purposes which I mentioned, connected to spiritual need or cultural need or ceremonial need."
First Nations people can apply to the program, but have to discuss the needs of the request with a wildlife officer.
He says the demand of First Nations exceeds the parts the department can supply.
Under the provincial Wildlife Act it is also illegal to pluck feathers from roadkill, and Fish and Wildlife has a lab that can determine if a feather was plucked from a live or dead bird or if the feather fell off naturally.
"If it's been determined that the bird has not died of unlawful means, for example if it's been determined its strictly an unfortunate roadkill or something like that, then the bird of prey would be delivered to a central repository in Edmonton where those birds are kept pending further distribution under this program," said Lyons.
Below are some of the items seized in the case. On mobile? Click here.