MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin's Chippewa tribes have beefed up safety protocols for night deer hunting, a tribal attorney testified Monday as the bands tried to convince a federal judge to allow the practice despite state wildlife officials' concerns.
Kekek Jason Stark, an attorney and policy analyst with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees the Chippewa's off-reservation rights, was the first witness to testify in a trial in front of U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb.
He said the tribes proposed revised safety requirements in March that call for hunters to use lights, submit more detailed shooting plans and moving the season's start back from Oct. 15 to Nov. 1.
The tribes also have increased the length of mandatory advanced hunting training from four hours to 12 hours and adopted tougher marksmanship standards, requiring permit applicants to hit targets eight out of 10 times in the dark as opposed to seven out of 10 times in daylight.
"The tribes throughout the evolving process were open to making changes to make it as safe as possible," Stark testified.
The trial comes as tensions continue to percolate between the Chippewa and the state. The two sides have been sparring for the last several months over a number of issues, including a Republican bill clearing the way for a gigantic iron mine near the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's reservation, the state's wolf hunt and the tribe's walleye spearing goals.
In November, the commission authorized Chippewa hunters to hunt deer at night in the ceded territory, a massive swath of northern Wisconsin the tribes handed over to the federal government in the 19th century. The Chippewa retain the right to hunt and fish in the territory.
The DNR has long banned night deer hunting statewide, including in the ceded territory. Agency officials maintain the practice is too dangerous because hunters can't see what's beyond their targets.
The Chippewa agreed to abide by the prohibition when they were hashing out their hunting and fishing rights in the ceded territory in front of Crabb two decades ago. The tribes tried to persuade Crabb in December that circumstances have changed since then, pointing to a provision in the wolf hunt regulations that allow hunters to go after those animals at night.
Crabb refused. Now the tribes have asked her to amend their 1991 agreement with the state to allow the practice, arguing again that circumstances have changed.
Tribal attorney Colette Routel reiterated in filings that the state allowed night wolf hunting this past fall. She also argued the DNR allowed sharpshooters to kill deer at night to stop chronic wasting disease and let private companies kill nuisance deer since 2000.
"These changes are significant, because they demonstrate that the State of Wisconsin believes there are safe means of shooting deer and other species using high caliber weapons at night," Routel wrote.
State attorneys worry changes to the 1991 agreement could open the door to re-litigating a host of tribal rights in the ceded territory. They've countered in their own briefs the tribes were aware of night shooting programs in the late 1980s, the CWD eradication effort ended more than six years ago and the 2013-15 state budget banned night wolf hunting.
"Since they cannot prove significantly changed circumstances make continued enforcement of Wisconsin's law prohibiting nighttime deer hunting inequitable, their motion must be denied," they wrote.
The trial is expected to last about a week.
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