Wyoming Tribe Opposes Off-Reservation Hunting Bill, Committee Approves It Anyway

A Senate Committee passed a bill that would give Gov. Mark Gordon authority to establish off-reservation hunting agreements with certain tribes despite claims that the bill would undermine tribal sovereignty.

Clair McFarland

February 14, 20236 min read

Reservation sign 6 3 22 scaled
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Amid opposition from Eastern Shoshone Tribal members, Wyoming lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill that would let the state’s governor establish off-reservation hunting agreements with Indian tribes.    

The Senate Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, with a 3-2 vote, passed House Bill 83. The bill’s next stop is the Senate floor.  The House passed it earlier this session.    

The bill does not constrain any tribes to an agreement, but places limitations on both the Gov. Mark Gordon and tribes as they pursue eventual agreements together.    

John St. Clair, Chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe’s six-person executive council, opposed the legislation in a Feb. 3 letter to Gordon.   

St. Clair said the legislation would give the state “complete control” over the agreement terms. He also noted that the state’s ability to regulate tribal members who hunt off the reservation is still being litigated in the courts.   

The Shoshone Bannock Tribal leadership of the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho also opposes HB 83, according to legislative testimony.   

An Attack On Tribal Sovereignty  

Jason Baldes, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, condemned the bill during the committee meeting, especially its section “c.”    

That section requires that any future agreement between tribe and state only could operate if several conditions are met. The agreement would have to be consistent with state statutes, the tribe would have to have a game code and the ability to enforce it effectively.The tribe would have to agree to a licensing system, and that violators would be subject to state or tribal prosecution.    

Section c also would align the tribal and state hunting seasons, compel the tribe to abide by closures set by the state Game and Fish commission, and would make tribal hunting fall under the state’s right to regulate “when necessary for conservation.”    

Baldes said the legislation was an attack on the tribe’s right of self-determination.  

“It’s inconceivable, really, that any tribe would agree to these even if the bill were to pass,” he said. “It’s a little bit striking that so many members of the Legislature support this, because of the fact that it does undermine the Shoshone Tribe’s sovereignty.”    

Instead Of Poaching Cases   

Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, had sponsored the bill but was one of two votes against it Tuesday after hearing tribal members’ opposition.    

She told Baldes that she sponsored the bill because members of both Shoshone Tribes approached lawmakers last May, hoping to negotiate the terms of their treaty rights rather than fight out the remaining ambiguities in court; possibly in criminal poaching cases.   

“Rather than relying on individuals having to break the law, maybe be subject to poaching charges, have criminal charges brought against them – “ said Ellis “To me negotiating seemed like the more responsible path.”    

Kit Wendtland, Gordon’s chief tribal policy advisor, has told legislators that without an agreement in place, the remaining tenets of tribal hunting rights may have to be defined one lengthy case at a time in the court system.    

No Promise With Future Legislature   

Ellis warned Baldes that future Wyoming Legislatures and future governors may not be willing to pursue an agreement at all, but would rather take their chances in court.    

“I don’t know if you’ll always have legislators who believe in sovereignty as much as we do and want to support our tribes,” said Ellis, referencing the work that she and Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, do as co-chairs of the Tribal Relations Committee.    

She told Baldes that there should be “some urgency” to get something in law underpinning future agreements, in case future administrations turn “antagonistic.”    

The committee voted down an amendment Ellis offered that would have taken out all of subsection c and inserted a requirement that whatever agreement did emerge would have to be ratified by both the state House and Senate.    

Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, opposed removing section c. He said those provisions were “sideboards” laying the groundwork for the hoped-for agreement, but nothing in the law binds any tribe to establish an actual agreement.    

Only Gordon   

Ellis asked the committee to put a sunset date into the bill, so that future governors would not have the ability to negotiate the tribal hunting agreements unless the Legislature later repeals the sunset date.    

She said the bill “was brought by a specific governor,” Gordon, who is interested in honoring tribal sovereignty and its time limit should reflect that.    

The committee adopted the expiration date on the bill: December 31, 2027.   

‘Our Tribe’ 

Jodie McAdams, Eastern Shoshone Tribal member and former tribal leader, told the committee it would be wrong to advance the bill since the tribal people have not approved of it or even held a vote on it.    

Though the six-person Eastern Shoshone Business Council functions as the tribe’s executive branch, its legislative branch is a quorum of adult voting members, called the General Council.    

Some tribal members have called for a General Council meeting to oppose HB 83.    

“This bill was never brought before our people,” said McAdams. “The Shoshone Business Council took it upon themselves to enter into negotiations to speak about that bill. They forgot about a very important first step, which was to see if this is what our people wanted.”    

The bill’s sponsor, Larsen, said the bill in fact lays the groundwork for the state’s legislative branch to allow its executive branch to negotiate if the tribe wishes.    

“They expressed concerns of, ‘Woah, woah, woah, the Business Council is getting out ahead of it,’” said Larsen. “We get that. That’s why we have this bill, because we’re the same way: we don’t like the governor getting ahead of the Legislature.”    

Roll Call   

Ellis and Sen. Stacy Jones, R-Rock Springs, voted against HB 83. Committee Chair Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, voted in favor of it, along with Gierau and Sen. Fred Baldwin, R-Kemmerer.   

Court Decision Changed How Things Were Done For 100 Years  

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that Crow tribe members have a treaty right to hunt on unoccupied lands throughout the nation. This right is in addition to tribal members’ existing right to be licensed and hunt under state law.  

It extends to the Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone Bannock Tribes, whose treaty guarantees the same hunting right found in the Crow treaty.   

Authorities for about 100 years prior had operated as though the treaty hunting right was extinguished when Wyoming became a state in 1890. The high court’s 2019 decision upended that understanding, extending special off-reservation hunting rights to members of those tribes.    

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter