First Nations leaders in B.C. said Thursday that they have the Charter right to hunt bald eagles for ceremonial purposes, but conservationists fear a legal hunt would only fuel the black market in protected wildlife.

At a press conference, Chief Doug Kelly of the Sto:lo Nation said that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees First Nations the right to hunt the birds, trumping the B.C. Wildlife Act.

"We want to make sure we that we can practice our right without fear of prosecution, and the only way we can do that is by engaging in a negotiation of an arrangement with Canada and British Columbia to provide that," Kelly said.

He also stressed that First Nations only wish to use eagle feathers for ceremonial purposes -- not to trade in animal parts.

"My family covered me with the regalia that I wear. That is consistent with the teachings of our family law. Selling it is not, money changing hands is not."

But the Western Canada Wilderness Committee remains concerned that allowing any sanctioned killing of bald eagles will help feed the international black market in wild animal parts.

"It's a $20-billion-per-year industry globally," WCWC scientist Andy Miller told CTV News. "This would add nothing but fuel to that."

Bald eagles are not considered to be a species at risk in Canada or in B.C., where about 20,000 birds are estimated to live.

But Miller said that doesn't mean that eagle populations could support a hunt.

"From our perspective it is just the wrong thing to be killing wildlife for their feathers, regardless of purpose."

Lucrative market for feet and tail feathers

Under the B.C. Wildlife Act, trafficking in bald eagle parts can lead to a two-year jail sentence and a $250,000 fine.

Dozens of mutilated eagles were found on the Burrard Inlet First Nation Reserve in North Vancouver in 2005.

Wesley Francis and Tommy Shaw were later convicted of poaching in the find. During the investigation, a manager for the B.C. Conservation Officer Service said the parts were sold in Canada and the U.S., possibly within the First Nations community's powwow circuit.

In November 2008, David Essary Bill of Brentwood Bay, B.C., was fined $10,000 after pleading guilty to unlawfully trafficking in bald eagle parts following a year-long Canada-wide investigation.

Conservation officials estimate up to 1,000 birds are killed illegally each year.

Wildlife officers say that these killings are so common because there is a large market for the feet and tail feathers of bald eagles.

The bird parts, which are used for ceremonial or artistic purposes, are sold on the black market for anywhere from $100 to $1,500 per part.

First Nations are issued permits to use parts of eagles that have died naturally for traditional ceremonies.

When dead birds are passed on to a native band, they are blessed to release their spirit, and prayers are said to apologize on behalf of man for their death.

With a report from CTV British Columbia's Peter Grainger