As the Washington Fish and Game Commission gets ready to decide whether to end or revise a 15-year-old agreement with the Colville Tribes, it’s apparent that the Indians and the non-Indians who own land within the reservation are poles apart in their interpretation of laws pertaining to hunting on the reservation.
“The Colville Tribes are not a treaty tribe,” commented Joe Peone, director of the tribe’s fish and wildlife department. “However, we still, in fact, do have reserved rights to hunt areas outside of the boundaries of the current reservation.
“Also, (tribal) members are not precluded from hunting non-member owned lands either on or off the reservation. Under tribal law, they must first obtain landowner permission to hunt on private land both within and outside of the reservation.”
Non-Indian owners of land within the reservation maintain they have a right to hunt big-game animals on their own land. They contend they were treated unlawfully and unfairly by the 1982 Fish and Wildlife Commission that made an agreement with the tribe that ended big-game hunting by the non-Indian landowners.
Tribal officials and non-Indian owners of land within the boundaries of the reservation are expected to attend the commission’s meeting Friday at the Best Western Inn at Ellensburg.
The commission says in its agenda for the meeting that it “will consider adoption of policy principles to be incorporated in a formal agreement with the Colville tribe and consider delegation of authority to the director to write and sign the agreement.”
To many non-Indians, the statement is an indication that the commission is ready to sign an amended agreement with the tribe that will continue to ban big-game hunting by non-Indian landowners within the reservation boundaries.
If the commission decides to withdraw from the agreement, a proposal for repeal of a law closing all lands within the reservation to the trapping and hunting of all wild animals, grouse and doves will be presented to the commission at its December meeting.
On the other hand, if the commission decides to approve the proposed policy, a new agreement will be written and signed by the Fish and Game Department’s director. Then the commission will consider adoption of a new law reflecting the agreement at a meeting before next April.
Peone, who requested that the Colville Tribe’s side of the controversy be presented, said in a letter to me that, “Ownership of the land does not convey fishing or hunting rights to the landowner.”
“The fish and wildlife of this country are considered public resources that belong to everyone, regardless of where they occur,” he said.
“Hunting and fishing is considered a privilege, not a right, for all U.S. citizens, with the sole exception of Indians to specified areas. Why? Because their ancestors were once the sovereigns in what is now the United States and they reserved these rights through treaties and Executive Orders.
“Federal law views that these rights are reserved by Indians and not granted to them by the government. These rights are usually tied to a particular area such as a reservation or usual and accustomed areas.”
Peone said that many non-Indians who own property within the reservation accept that they can’t hunt big game on their property.
“In fact,” he said, “they appreciate that the reservation is not overrun with hunters.” And he added that there are non-Indian landowners who bought property on the reservation to get away from hunting pressure they’ve experienced on their land elsewhere.
He emphasized that the Colville Indians “will always maintain that their reservation was first and foremost set aside for the use of the Colville tribal members and their families.”
“Where there are surplus resources that the tribes do not utilize, the tribes will consider providing opportunities for non-members to enjoy such surplus.”
Now it’s up to the Fish and Wildlife Commission to make its decision whether to withdraw from the agreement made with the Colvilles in 1982, to continue the agreement as it’s written or to amend the agreement.
If it continues to ban big-game hunting by owners of land within the reservation, it almost certainly will be for political expediency. It will sacrifice the rights of a few for the benefit of many non-Indians who now fish and hunt on the reservation and along Lake Roosevelt.
Many Washington citizens, including some people who served on the 1982 commission and some top level Fish and Wildlife Department officials, then and now, believe that the right decision is to withdraw from the agreement.
You can contact Fenton Roskelley by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 3814.
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