At the least, there is unease. Just what are those Supremes going to do next?
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week could play havoc with Wyoming Game and Fish hunting policies – or it may not – at the same time it blessed one Native American tribe’s rights. In a five-year-old case, by a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled a member of the Crow Indian tribe who had been arrested and fined, was acting appropriately when hunting elk out of season in the Bighorn National Forest. The justices invoked an 1868 treaty as their reasoning.
An observation on that: This could be just about the only treaty the U.S. government entered into with Native Americans it didn’t already break.
While the ruling had to be satisfying for the hunter Clayvin Herrera, who has been facing a conviction for hunting out of season and his sentence of suspended prison time, a three-year hunting ban and an $8,000 fine, the broader implications may not be quite as satisfying for the common good.
Under the treaty, the tribe was relinquishing land, but retained the right to hunt and fish on “unoccupied” lands in Wyoming and Montana at any time. The cornerstone of the issue revolves around what constitutes “unoccupied” territory. The court concluded that even though Wyoming became a state in 1890 and the Bighorn area became a national forest preserve in 1897, that did not automatically mean they became occupied territory.
The implication – that alarms some – would be that Herrera and other Crow tribal members’ hunting privileges supersede state regulations and quotas that apply to others and are designed to protect game long-term. That’s how former Park County Commissioner Loren Grosskopf interprets the ruling.
“It was contrary to other decisions,” said Grosskopf, noting precedent would seem to argue against this approach. “I am appalled. This has been the North American model of conservation for 200 years and they don’t honor that. This could turn everything upside-down.”
While the highest court did not offer a definition of unoccupied land, it did remand the case to Wyoming state courts. Possibly, some definition will follow.
Brian Nesvik, director of Wyoming Game and Fish, provided a more measured response. “There are no immediate implications on the ground today,” Nesvik said.
Gov. Mark Gordon reiterated that stand, saying Wyoming will “continue to ensure equal hunting opportunities for all” as courts consider “the outstanding issues.”
Game and Fish hunting seasons and bag limits are developed based on scientific study, monitoring the health of populations, and the success rate of hunters. That information is examined each year in order to prevent overhunting and to maintain the perpetuation of the human-animal balance in the state’s ecosystem. All states follow the same patterns and Wyoming’s agency does not want to tamper with it.
“That’s certainly our position,” Nesvik said. “We’re comfortable with our system of management.”
The Supreme Court justices may also agree that such tried-and-tested policies may be best for American wildlife. But in the process of protecting one man’s rights, the entire system for a whole state could be jeopardized.