Hunting for boundaries

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board July 08, 2011 06:18 pm

We support the rights of Native Americans to hunt wildlife in parts of Northeastern Oregon where their ancestors hunted for millennia.

But those rights have limits — geographical boundaries foremost among them.

Tribal members who ignore those boundaries should be punished just as non-tribal hunters are who stray outside the area where they’re permitted to hunt.

We were pleased, then, when Judge Greg Baxter ruled last week that James Bronson Jr. is guilty of poaching two bighorn sheep rams in eastern Baker County a few years ago.

Baxter sentenced Bronson, who’s a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, to serve 20 days in jail and to pay almost $16,000 in restitution and fines. The judge also suspended Bronson’s hunting rights in Oregon for two years.

Baxter’s ruling sets an important precedent.

His verdict establishes that the Nez Perce’s ceded lands — areas that aren’t part of the Tribe’s reservation but where tribal members can legally hunt, fish and gather berries — do not extend south beyond the mouth of the Powder River.

Bronson killed the two bighorns in the Lookout Mountain unit, several miles south of the Powder River.

Baxter’s decision is noteworthy in another respect.

His conviction of Bronson highlights the stark contrast between the responsible and irresponsible ways in which tribal members can exert their hunting rights.

The responsible approach is epitomized by the Nez Perce’s neighbors, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

The Umatillas’ ceded lands, unlike the Nez Perce’s, do include most of Baker County.

That means Umatilla members had the legal right to start hunting bighorns here as soon as the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) restored sheep to the Lookout Mountain unit in the early 1990s (bighorns had been extirpated from that area decades earlier from a combination of overhunting and diseases spread by domestic livestock).

But instead the Umatilla Tribes waited until the Lookout Mountain herd had become well-established. In fact, the Umatillas didn’t start issuing bighorn hunting tags to tribal members until 2006, several years after the state started allowing non-tribal hunters to kill bighorns in that area.

And when the Tribes did assert their hunting rights, they, like the ODFW, set a strict limit on the number of tags so as to prevent the kind of unsustainable hunting that doomed bighorn herds in the past.

This measured approach shows that the Umatilla Tribes greatly value the chance to revive their ancient hunting traditions., and that they want to continue to have that opportunity, just as non-tribal hunters have.

Poachers such as Bronson, on the other hand, whether they’re tribal members or not, have the ability to decimate herds and thus deprive all hunters.

To be clear, we’re not implicating the Nez Perce in Bronson’s crimes.

The Tribe, which is based in Lapwai, Idaho, has not defended Bronson’s actions.

The only reason Bronson’s tribal status is relevant is that he claimed that status entitled him to kill the two bighorns.

But although he and other tribal members do have hunting rights beyond those afforded to non-tribal members — rights that date to treaties signed in 1855 — those rights are not absolute.

And now, thanks in part to the deft prosecution by Baker County District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff, the limits to those rights are more specific than they were before.