Umatilla tribes assert right to hunt in Baker County
By JAYSON JACOBY
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation will revive one of their ancestors' ancient traditions this summer, and the historic event will happen in Baker County.
For the first time in more than half a century, tribal members will hunt bighorn sheep and mountains goats in Northeastern Oregon, a right which the tribes reserved in a treaty they signed with the U.S. government 151 years ago.
That was in 1855, four years before Oregon became a state.
Umatilla tribal members, whose forebears for many millennia hunted sheep and goats to get food, hides and other products, hope to kill two bighorns and one mountain goat in Baker County between late August and late September.
Baker County is unique among Oregon's 36 counties in that it harbors herds of mountain goats and both subspecies of bighorn sheep native to the state Rocky Mountain and California.
The Umatilla's planned hunts are limited to tribal members the tribes can't, for example, sell the hunting rights to a non-tribal hunter.
One tribal member will hunt for California bighorns in the Burnt River Canyon between Durkee and Bridgeport, and another will go after Rocky Mountain bighorns on Lookout Mountain near Huntington, said Carl Scheeler, who manages the wildlife program for the Umatilla.
A tribal hunter will try to bag a mountain goat in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City, Scheeler said.
Although the Umatillas' 1855 treaty guarantees them the right to hunt and fish, Oregon officials have at times tried to regulate tribal hunting and fishing, said Stephanie Soden, a spokeswoman at state Attorney General Hardy Myers' office.
Scheeler, though, contends the 1855 treaty supersedes the state's authority.
Regardless, the state's stance now is to not contest tribal hunting unless the hunting could cause the extinction of a species in Oregon, Soden said.
The Umatillas' hunts pose no such threat to Baker County's bighorns and mountain goats, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).
"The state tries to respect that (hunting) is a culturally significant thing for the tribes to do," Soden said. "As long as the herds are maintained it's allowed."
Scheeler said tribal officials would not have asserted their treaty rights had any of the affected herds been struggling. In fact, he thinks the Umatilla have been admirably patient he points out that ODFW has allowed non-tribal hunters to pursue mountain goats and bighorns in Baker County for more than a decade.
The bottom line, Scheeler said, is that the tribes want to work with, not against, ODFW.
"The tribes will be coordinating with the state to assure all data collection and pre-hunt orientation that (non-tribal) hunters adhere to will be done by the tribal hunters," Scheeler said.
For instance, ODFW requires non-tribal hunters who kill a bighorn or mountain goat to take the animal to an ODFW office within 72 hours so state biologists can examine the carcass and compile data, such as the animal's age, that help the agency keep track of how herds are doing.
The Umatilla tribal hunters will have to comply with the same schedule, Scheeler said.
The Confederated Tribes, who have a 172,000-acre reservation near Pendleton, comprise the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Cayuse peoples.
The tribes once occupied an area totaling 6.4 million acres in Northeastern Oregon and Southeastern Oregon, but in 1855 they signed a treaty that gave the federal government control over most of that land.
In exchange, the tribes kept their comparatively small reservation, and they retained the right to hunt, fish and gather berries on what are known as "ceded territory" land that lies outside the reservation, but inside the tribes' original 6.4-million-acre homeland, which includes most of Baker County, Scheeler said.
He said Umatilla officials will award the three hunting tags by way of a lottery system similar to the one ODFW uses to distribute big game tags to non-tribal hunters.
The drawing for the three tribal tags is set for next week, Scheeler said.
He said tribal hunters will have to use either a centerfire rifle of .243 caliber or larger, or a bow. Scheeler expects tribal hunters will use rifles.
No immediate effect on hunting opportunity for non-tribal hunters
The Umatilla tribal hunts will not force ODFW to cut the number of sheep or goat tags it sells this year to non-tribal hunters, said Ryan Torland, a wildlife biologist at the ODFW's Baker City office.
ODFW has already awarded five tags to non-tribal hunters: one for the Burnt River Canyon hunt, two tags for Lookout Mountain and two tags for the mountain goat hunt in the Elkhorns.
In addition, the hunter who won a raffled mountain goat tag, which entitles that hunter to pursue goats in the Elkhorns, Wallowas or Hells Canyon, plans to hunt in the Elkhorns in September, Torland said.
The bottom line, then, is that the Umatilla's tribal members will boost the number of hunters in those three areas from six to nine.
Torland said that plucking only one animal from each of the three herds, as the Umatilla tribal hunters intend to do this year, probably would not have a noticeable effect on any of those herds.
But what's not clear is how long the addition of tribal hunting would remain benign, said Jim Cadwell, who's also a biologist in ODFW's Baker City office.
"We cannot handle a tremendous amount of additional hunting on these herds without it having an effect on (non-tribal) hunters," Cadwell said.
Avoiding such effects is precisely why the Umatilla's fish and wildlife commission waited until this year to schedule bighorn and mountain goat hunts in Northeastern Oregon, Scheeler said.
"We have been coordinating with the state of Oregon to make sure we're taking into consideration any biological issues," Scheeler said.
He said tribal officials understand that populations of bighorn sheep and mountains goats in Baker County are tiny compared with, say, mule deer and Rocky Mountain elk, two plentiful species that Umatilla tribal hunters have harvested every year "since time immemorial," as Scheeler puts it.
As recently as 1950, both varieties of bighorn, and mountain goats, were extirpated from Northeastern Oregon.
Today, about 170 mountain goats roam the Elkhorns, according to ODFW.
The Burnt River Canyon bighorn herd numbers about 70, and an estimated 90 sheep live on Lookout Mountain.
Scheeler said the tribes could have invoked their treaty rights many years ago and hunted bighorns and mountain goats within the Umatilla's ceded territory.
But he said tribal officials recognized that both the wild sheep and the mountain goats, besides being relatively rare, are "very high profile, high value" animals that non-tribal hunters also prize.
"Because the populations (of bighorn sheep and mountain goats) are fairly small, the tribes have chosen to be extremely restrictive in allowing hunting," Scheeler said. "We wanted to go into this very carefully and thoughtfully."
Permits to hunt bighorns or mountain goats are among the more coveted tags ODFW sells.
In 2004, for instance, 2,484 people applied for one of the two mountain goat tags in the Elkhorns.
Also, ODFW allows hunters to receive only one bighorn sheep and one mountain goat in their lifetime.
ODFW trapped/transplanted sheep, goats to rebuild herds
Due to excessive hunting and the spread of diseases carried by domestic livestock, mountains goats were extirpated from Eastern Oregon more than a century ago, according to ODFW.
California bighorns disappeared by 1915, and Rocky Mountain bighorns were gone by 1945.
But over the past 55 years, ODFW has strived to return both species of bighorns, as well as mountain goats, to their native habitat in Oregon.
The agency, by means of trapping sheep and goats in other places and trucking them to Oregon, has succeeded in several places, including Baker County.
"The tribes have been watching those recovery efforts closely," Scheeler said. "The tribes are very supportive of bighorn and Rocky Mountain goat reintroduction efforts and want to assure that their exercise of treaty rights does not jeopardize the ongoing successes."
Although ODFW has allowed people to hunt bighorns and mountains goats for more than a decade, not until this year did the Umatilla's fish and wildlife commission vote to authorize tribal members to pursue those animals under the provisions of the 1955 treaty, Scheeler said.
That treaty guarantees tribal members "the privilege of hunting. . . at all usual and accustomed" places throughout the 6.4-million-acre ceded territory an area slightly smaller than Baker, Union, Umatilla and Morrow counties combined.