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Colorado tribe, armed with old treaty, expands hunting

November 3, 2008 |  2:30 pm

Special correspondent DeeDee Correll reports from Denver:

Over the years, Ray C. Frost has found little reason to leave his tribe's reservation to hunt the deer and elk whose meat fills his freezer.

Game is plentiful on the Southern Ute tribe's land in southwest Colorado and the hunting "fantastic," Frost said. But next year, the former tribal councilman and other Southern Ute hunters will venture off their land for a historic act: They will hunt on public lands, exercising long-dormant rights under a century-old treaty with the federal government.

Under the 1874 treaty, known as the Brunot agreement, the Utes relinquished 4 million acres to the United States but retained the right to hunt on the land for "so long as the game lasts and the Indians are at peace with the white people."

One hundred thirty-four years later, the Southern Utes are invoking those rights. "It's really not as much about the animals as it is wanting to protect the treaty rights and the tribe's sovereign authority," said Steve Whiteman, the tribe's wildlife management director.

The 1,400-member tribe's plans have prompted some grumblings among non-Indian hunters, who fear the Southern Utes will hunt year-round or trespass on private land. Some also complain that it amounts to special privilege, which the Southern Utes and state officials have taken pains to deny.

"This is not a privilege. This is a right established long ago," said Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has ruled that such treaties remain valid, he said. In the last several years, the Southern Utes have focused on asserting those rights, said Monte Mills, legal director for the tribe, based in Ignacio.

"Although it's not true in a legal sense that rights can disappear if they're not used, I think a lot of tribes feel if they're not maintained and kept alive, there's that threat" of losing them, he said.

The Southern Utes, whose royalties from gas and oil production on their land make them one of the wealthiest tribes, have taken steps to assert their independence since the 1960s, said Charles Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado and an expert on American Indian law.

What's changed is how both tribal and state governments approach such matters. Previous conflicts were characterized by much tumult and litigation, such as the "fish wars" of the 1960s over Indian fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest. "What you're starting to see is statesmanship on both sides, and it's much better. It's historic," Wilkinson said.

In this case, the tribe approached state wildlife officials. "We wanted to be sure to do it in a responsible way," Mills said. Under the agreement, tribal members don't have to acquire a state permit to hunt on public lands, but the tribe will regulate its members and require them to obtain tribal permits.

Although the tribe hasn't established its exact hunting seasons, Whiteman said, it will stick to the same general time frame of the state hunting seasons, and its rules will mirror state regulations. Nor will tribal members hunt on private land without the owner's permission, he said.

"I think there's a fear out there it's not going to be managed well, that it's going to be irresponsibly done. That's not how this tribe is going to approach it," Whiteman said. Those conditions assuaged the concerns of some residents who recently attended public hearings about the treaty.

"I feel a lot better," said Dick Steele, 54, a veterinarian in the town of Delta who hunts deer and elk. "I think the Utes are going to be pretty good about their law enforcement." He noted that thousands of out-of-staters visit Colorado every year to hunt, compared with about 225 Southern Utes expected to take advantage of the treaty to hunt off the reservation.

"That's a drop in the bucket compared with what we're already sharing," he said. One sticking point, however, is the hunting of rare game, including bighorn sheep and moose. For state residents, obtaining a permit for the animals can take as many as 15 years because Colorado issues so few annually.

The Utes have agreed not to hunt them without a state license; in exchange, the state will give them 5% of the licenses for the area. Steve German, a local hunter, said he had mixed feelings. "According to the agreement in 1874, they should get those rights," he said.

On the other hand, he said, it's unfair that a tribal member can acquire a rare-game license from the tribe, then also apply for one as a state resident. "That gives them a special right," he said. "I'm against all special rights."

To Frost, the former tribal councilman, the chance to hunt a bighorn sheep is one aspect of the agreement that he and other hunters most anticipate. "I'm going to try to get one of those licenses myself," he said. He's also looking forward to the chance to take his teenage grandson, already an accomplished elk hunter, to explore some new terrain. "This will give us an opportunity to go outside our reservation and hunt on the land our forefathers once had."

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