Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt favors a policy change that would allow members of the Hopi tribe to remove golden eagles from a national monument in northern Arizona, a move that critics fear could open the door to hunting in national parks.

The issue at the Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff, Ariz., has been percolating since summer, when the Hopi requested permission to take eaglets for use in a religious ceremony. Taking or hunting of animals at national parks is strictly prohibited, but Babbitt said in an interview that he favors allowing an exception in this case. The months-long debate within the Interior Department was described by one official as "a flash fire."

"We've had a long internal discussions about this," Babbitt said. "My general view is that we should respect traditional religious uses on public lands by Native Americans to the extent that they do not jeopardize or threaten the extinction of a species. We need to examine these issues on a case-by-case, site-specific basis."

The controversy broadly pits freedom of religion against the long-standing mandate of the National Park Service to protect wildlife on federal land. Conservation groups monitoring the issue are appalled by the precedent that could be set.

"It has the potential to unravel the parks system as a collection of animal sanctuaries. This strikes at the integrity of the parks system," said Frank Buono, a retired longtime Park Service administrator who wrote a legal analysis of the issue for the National Parks and Conservation Association. "Not even [former interior secretary] James Watt attempted to do this."

Sam Henderson, park superintendent at Wupatki, said that after the issue arose, he and other park managers began being inundated with requests from hunters to hunt the herds of elk, deer and moose that roam at many national parks.

The Internet, Henderson said, is crackling with speculation about the future for hunting in parks. A decade ago the National Rifle Association sued unsuccessfully to open parks to hunting; fishing has long been allowed.

"I don't know how you stop it once it starts," Henderson said. "We have sensitivity to the Hopi culture, we understand why they want to do this, but the national park is not the appropriate place to gather the eagles."

The Hopi have been gathering eaglets in the area for centuries and the land within the monument is recognized as the tribe's ancestral home. They also gather eagles on Navajo land.

Golden eagles are not endangered but are protected under a 1962 amendment to the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which makes it illegal to collect eagle feathers or parts. However, the Hopis are permitted to gather the eaglets under two acts of Congress.

In June, Henderson rejected the Hopi request to use permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that allowed the taking of up to 40 eagles and red-tailed hawks elsewhere on federal land.

The Hopi appealed the decision, which was upheld by the Park Service regional director and in Washington by the acting director. A further appeal directly to Babbitt yielded a letter in September from Don Barry, assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks, that rescinded the earlier decision and informed the tribe that the matter was under advisement.

The season for taking of eaglets has passed, and in October the Hopi withdrew their request. The tribe is expected to raise the issue again next year.

A Hopi spokesman could not be reached for comment, but the tribe has indicated in the past a willingness to go to court to assert the right to practice their religion. Barry is waiting for a legal opinion to formally conclude the matter.

"The Park Service has been taking baby steps in this direction for some time," Barry said. "We've been instructed by Congress to remove impediments to Native American religious freedom. We must show respect and deference to the tribe's leaders in a government-to-government relationship."

Congress has allowed one exception regarding hunting in national parks, providing for subsistence hunting at two parks in Alaska. Barry does not agree that the policy regarding the Hopi stands to enlarge that exception.

"It's a bogus, bogus argument to say that all of a sudden it's going to be the NRA next," he said. "I'm not going to be stampeded by that. I think it's really an intellectually flabby conclusion to reach."

Native Americans commonly receive exemptions regarding access and gathering of resources on federal land. In August, the Hopi signed an agreement with the nearby Kaibab National Forest that gave the tribe the right to collect ceremonial and medicinal plants, as well as access to burial sites.