A federal judge on Monday blocked Wisconsin's Chippewa bands from hunting deer at night for what's left of the tribal season, creating a lull in what has become a pitched legal battle between the tribes and state wildlife officials.

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune file

U.S. judge blocks Wis. Chippewa's night deer hunt

  • Article by: TODD RICHMOND
  • Associated Press
  • December 18, 2012 - 12:05 AM

MADISON, Wis. - A federal judge on Monday blocked Wisconsin's Chippewa bands from hunting deer at night for what's left of the tribal season, creating a lull in what has become a pitched legal battle between the tribes and state wildlife officials.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb wrote in her order that the tribes overstepped their authority when they granted tribal hunters permission to kill deer at night without the state's approval. The judge said the move violated a ruling she made more than 20 years ago that requires the Chippewa and the state to negotiate changes to tribal hunting rules and get her approval before making them final. She encouraged both sides to reach a deal.

"The proper response cannot be for each side to decide on its own what the law permits, particularly with an issue that involves public safety concerns," Crabb wrote.

Tribal attorney Colette Routel didn't immediately return telephone and email messages. Sue Erickson, a spokeswoman for a commission that oversees the Chippewa's off-reservation rights, held out hope night deer hunting could happen in 2013.

"It was important the opinion did not rule on the issue of safety ... but rather encourages the parties to reach a deal," Erickson said. "We just have to figure out what steps need to be taken to get there."

State Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp issued a statement saying the state was pleased with Crabb's ruling and the agency will continue to work with the tribes.

The Chippewa signed treaties in the 1800s with the federal government reserving the tribes' right to hunt and fish in what's known as the ceded territory, a 22,400-acre swath of northern Wisconsin the tribes handed over to the government. Crabb made a series of rulings in the 1970s confirming the tribes can exercise those rights as they see fit as long as they don't endanger the state's conservation efforts or public safety.

As a result, the tribes have been running their own deer hunts in the territory for years, with seasons that generally last from mid-October to early January. The Chippewa in 1989 tried to persuade Crabb to exempt tribal hunters from the state's ban on night deer hunting. Crabb ultimately sided with the state, ruling night deer hunting is a safety risk and the ban must therefore apply to the tribes. She said the two sides can modify her rulings if they can come to an agreement on changes and obtain her approval, however.

The tribes have lived with the ban ever since. But relationships between the Chippewa and the state began to fray earlier this year.

First Republican lawmakers introduced legislation to help a Florida-based company open a giant iron mine just south of Lake Superior. The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa feared the mine would contaminate their beloved rice beds and complained legislators ignored them when they drafted the bill.

The measure ultimately failed in the state Senate. Weeks later, though, Republicans tweaked the tribes again when they passed a bill establishing the state's first organized wolf hunt. The measure allows hunters to go after wolves at night following the state's traditional November gun deer hunt.

The Chippewa see the wolf as a spiritual brother. Powerless to stop the hunt, the tribal commission authorized Chippewa hunters in September to kill an elk, a species the DNR has been struggling for years to reintroduce to the state. Late last month the commission unilaterally authorized Chippewa hunters who pass marksmanship tests and submit shooting plans to hunt deer at night despite the state ban.

The tribes argued a night deer hunt would be no more dangerous than going after wolves in the dark and tribal hunters deserve the same privileges as state hunters. They contended they could issue the night deer hunting authorization unilaterally because the DNR unreasonably objected to the concept, tossing aside the tribes' assurances that the hunt would be safe. They asked Crabb to prevent state wardens and police from enforcing Wisconsin's ban on night deer hunting against Chippewa hunters.

Crabb acknowledged the tribes raised "legitimate questions" about the fairness of allowing state hunters to go after wolves at night but not letting tribal hunters kill deer after dark. But she said the tribes can't cite any authority that allows them to alter their hunting plans without the state signing off and without court approval. Even if the tribes believe the DNR is acting unreasonably, they're not entitled to take unilateral action, she said.

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