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Treaty Hunting Rights FAQ

What is a treaty?

A treaty is a constitutionally recognized contract between sovereign nations. These legally binding contracts are protected under the U.S. Constitution, which states that they are the “supreme law of the land.”

Why did the federal government sign treaties with the tribes in Washington?

In the mid-1850s, the federal government wanted to make the Washington Territory a state. The federal government determined that the tribes were sovereign nations with title to the land. The United States government approached individual tribes, in the same manner that it would approach another sovereign nation, and negotiated treaties to acquire the lands held by the tribes.

What did the treaties say about hunting?

Under the terms of the treaties, the tribes ceded millions of acres of land to the federal government. However, the tribes retained certain rights that would enable them to provide for themselves. Among these reserved rights was the “privilege of hunting on open and unclaimed lands.” The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that there is no legal distinction between a tribal “right” or “privilege” regarding hunting.

What are “open and unclaimed lands”?

That treaty term has not been clearly defined. Federal courts have ruled, however, that certain public lands (such as National Forests) not set aside for uses incompatible with hunting can be considered open and unclaimed.

What does hunting mean to Indian Tribes?

Indian tribes allow their members to hunt to meet their ceremonial and sustenance needs. All tribes prohibit hunting for commercial purposes. Deer and elk meat are elements of feasts that are part of tribal ceremonies and other cultural events such as potlatches, funerals and naming ceremonies. These occur throughout the year. Tribes harvest only a small number of animals for ceremonial purposes. Tribes also depend on hunting to feed themselves. On some reservations unemployment reaches 80 percent. Indians hunt after the fall fishing season to provide food for their families. Deer, elk and other species provide important nutrition.

Why don’t tribal members have the same seasons and bag limits as other citizens?

As sovereign governments, the tribes exercise their right to set regulations that may be different from those established by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission. The tribes set seasons based on the needs of their hunters, and take into prime consideration the ability of the resource to support harvest.

Most tribal hunters do not hunt only for themselves. The culture of tribes in Western Washington is based on extended family relationships of grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives. A tribal hunter usually shares his game with several families. Many tribes issue a “Designated Hunter” permit to allow a tribal hunter to harvest an animal for an elder or family who cannot provide for themselves.

How are tribal hunters regulated?

Each tribe develops its own hunting ordinances and regulations governing tribal members. Regulations, including seasons and bag limits, may vary from tribe to tribe. All tribal hunters are licensed by their tribe. If a tribal hunter is found to be in violation of tribal regulations he is cited to appear in tribal court. Penalties include fines and loss of hunting privileges. Many tribes have hunting regulations that are virtually identical to those set forth by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, such as minimum caliber requirements and safety regulations.

Are tribal hunters overharvesting the deer and elk resources?

No. Tribal hunters harvest about 2 percent of the harvestable population of deer and elk. According to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics for 2012, non-Indian hunters took approximately 29,154 deer; treaty tribal hunters harvested about 495. In that same period, non-Indian hunters took about 7,236 elk; treaty tribal hunters harvested about 365.

Most elk herds in Washington are healthy. Loss of habitat poses a far bigger threat to the health of elk herds in the state than the small number of tribal hunters.

How are the tribes working with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and others to protect and manage wildlife resources?

The tribes want to work with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The state and tribes have held a series of meetings to share information and discuss management and enforcement needs. More meetings are planned. Tribes participate in a variety of cooperative programs, such as population surveys and habitat enhancement projects that aid wildlife management.