The sweet scent of tobacco wafts from the sacred pipe of my friend Mato Woksape (Lakota-Potawatomi), and the sound of his drumming reverberates off the cliffs at my back as he sings in ceremony.
My eyes meander down, and I spot the small burrow of a Kangaroo rat. Her tracks emenate out in all directions, two jumping feet, the drag mark of her tail, gathering seeds to bring back to her burrow. Jackrabbit tracks meander through the rabbitbrush. A single fox track marks a journey made directly through our camp in the night.
My eyes rise again and I spot two birds circling far overhead. Ravens? We see them often, gliding out of the blowing snow to peer at us, or winging across the pass on sunlit mornings like this.
But no. These birds are too far away, and too big, to be ravens. I look more closely.
They are golden eagles.
As I watch, they fly slowly from east to west, circling high, high overhead.
My eyes adjust to the distance, and their massive size comes into focus. Their wingspan is more than 7 feet.
Suddenly the eagles come together, and I gasp. They lock their claws and drop, spiraling towards the ground.
This is how eagles mate: passion in freefall, conception in weightlessness. This is a mature male and female, likely a monogamous pair who will stay together for many years, perhaps for life.
This is their home. They know these mountains far better than me — better than any human. Far overhead, sperm makes its way toward egg in the dance 1.2 billion years old. In the females womb, life quickens.
Separating, they pull smoothly out of their dive, manuvering more precisely than any aeroplane, turning deftly than any drone. Far above my head, 4 billion years of evolution rides the wind on 7 feet of long primary feathers, effortlessly reading air currents, riding the wind, surveying their terrain.
After a moment, I remember to breathe.
After golden eagles breed, they usually lay between two and four eggs in late spring. After hatching, the chicks are fed by their parents over the summer. Usually only one or two survive to make their first, bravest flight. And even then, they have a gauntlet to run — speeding trucks, electrocution on powerlines, the slow agony of lead accumulating in tissue.
I turn back to look across Thacker Pass, and wonder. What world will remain for the chicks born of this union? By this summer or fall, when the chicks conceived overhead moments ago are grown enough to leave the nest, will there be land to feed them? Will the jackrabbits still walk their trails across this land?
It is a federal crime for me or you to harm an eagle, or to disturb or destroy their nest. It’s even a crime for non-Natives to possess a single feather. But as usual in an extractive economy, corporations don’t have to play by the same rules as we do.
Lithium Americas Corporation, the company behind the proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass, has asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for an “incidental take” permit. And it’s likely the agency will grant it.
The law was designed with loopholes to ensure that wildlife never get in the way of “progress”. At the end of 2016, the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Obama administration weakened protections for bald and golden eagles at the behest of the wind energy industry. Progress, after all, should never be halted.
The same loopholes render even the Endangered Species Act toothless. A backlog of thousands of applications for listing leaves vulnerable species waiting for protection until extinction claims them first, and loopholes ensure that business comes first. Out of thousands upon thousands of industrial projects, mines, energy facilities, and cases of urban sprawl harming endangered species, only a few projects have ever been denied under endangered species grounds. Almost always, the permits are granted, and the land is destroyed.
Incidental take. The I am reminded of other phrases used to hide atrocities: collateral damage. Externalities.
The USFWS permit would allow Lithium Americas to legally kill golden eagles and disrupt or destroy nests and habitat. If the proposed open pit mine at Thacker Pass is built, it would impact up to a dozen breeding pairs of golden eagles who reside in this area—and maybe far more.
An insider with knowledge of the situation told me that the population surveys used by USFWS are conducted by a private company known for “making sure corporations get their permits.” Eagles mustn’t get in the way of profits.
Watching the pair of eagles wing away over the Montana Mountains, I imagine their corpses hanging from transmission lines or smashed on the roadside. I imagine nests abandoned, eggs growing cold. I think of eagles watching their hunting grounds turned into an industrial nightmare and winging east and west, north and south, looking for good habitat, and finding none.
Golden eagles, like most wildlife — like me — are allergic to civilization. Where the works of humankind dominate, they cannot thrive. And so golden eagles are extirpated – driven locally extinct – across much of their former territory. There are only 40,000 golden eagles left in this country, and that number continues to dwindle.
Most people have never seen one, and most people never will.
What gives Lithium Americas and the USFWS the right to decide the fate of these soaring beings? What, besides power? The truth is simple. They are no more than school bullies, ready to take what is not theirs, simply because they can – because it will make them powerful.
My parents taught me stand up to bullies. No matter the cost. Gather friends, allies, and the truth. Then, simply stop them.
And so I am here, on the side of Thacker Pass, where I have been for the last 21 days, protesting the lithium mine in person. To stop this mine and protect the golden eagles of Thacker Pass will require more than the small encampment currently in place here. And so invite you. I implore you. And I entreat you. Stand with me. Stand here, at Thacker Pass, and everywhere else our wild and winged kin face industrial oblivion. Stand and fight.