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Off-reservation hunting bill advances despite tribal objections

Native American senator’s amendment to scrub language that infringes on tribal sovereignty voted down in committee.

Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Chairman Nathan Small examines a medallion gifted to him by Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly in August 2022. Small and the Shoshone-Bannock people have come out in opposition to the Wyoming Legislature’s House Bill 83. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

By Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile

CHEYENNE—An Indigenous-led push to halt what tribes say is a flawed effort to put the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Herrera v. Wyoming off-reservation hunting decision into action failed Tuesday.

The setback for tribes came during a Senate Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee hearing on House Bill 83 – Tribal agreements to hunt and fish, which would pave the path for Gov. Mark Gordon to negotiate off-reservation hunting pacts with the Eastern Shoshone, Shoshone-Bannock and other tribes with treaty-guaranteed hunting rights. 

The Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock business councils have come out in opposition to the approach embodied in the legislation. Lawmakers and state officials, however, were undeterred, and much of Tuesday’s discussion during the committee meeting revolved around why the measure should be moved along without Native support. That was a development that Eastern Shoshone member Jodie McAdams struggled to get her head around.

“Why is this bill continuing when it doesn’t have the support of the Shoshone Tribe?” McAdams asked the committee in remote testimony. “Why would the state take it upon themselves now to try to govern us? We’re a sovereign nation. It’s up to us, as a sovereign, to create our own laws.” 

Requests to halt or strip down HB 83 from McAdams and others were not persuasive to the balance of the committee, which advanced the measure 3-2. 

In its essence, the bill, initiated by the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, would build the framework for state-tribal agreements for off-reservation hunting and fishing rights — rights that are not subject to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s licensing and season regulations, according to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. That case, Herrera v. Wyoming, confirmed Crow tribal members’ treaty rights to hunt “unoccupied lands.” Now, other tribes, like the Eastern Shoshone, are trying to exercise their own treaty-enshrined off-reservation hunting rights — and the state and tribe sought to work it out cooperatively. 

But the cooperative effort fell apart. Shoshone Business Council Chairman John St. Clair, writing to Gov. Mark Gordon, withdrew his support for HB 83 on February 3. 

Jason Baldes, Eastern Shoshone tribal member and Intertribal Buffalo Council board member, holds his grandson Aabriel in October 2021. Baldes and the Eastern Shoshone Tribe have come out in opposition to the Wyoming Legislature’s House Bill 83. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

While no current Eastern Shoshone business council members addressed the Senate committee on Tuesday, enrolled member and bison restoration advocate Jason Baldes did take the time to weigh in. He listed off provisions in HB 83 that “essentially shred tribal sovereignty” by giving the state of Wyoming too much authority and oversight. Among other harmful elements Baldes took exception to: Clauses in the legislation that subject non-licensed tribal members to state prosecution, and requirements that the tribes align their hunting, fishing and trapping seasons with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s seasons. 

“All of these effectively eliminate tribal sovereignty,” Baldes said. “[They] leave the governor very little, if any, room to actually negotiate. These [measures] violate our established treaty rights for the Shoshone Tribe.” 

Baldes found it “inconceivable” that any tribe would agree to all of HB 83’s provisions. It was “striking,” he said, that so many members of the Legislature support the bill, given that it undermines tribal sovereignty. 

House Bill 83 co-sponsor Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne), a Navajo Nation member, tried to address sovereignty-related concerns by doing away with all the preconditions Baldes and other tribal members cited. Those types of parameters can instead be incorporated into the actual agreements the legislation would enable, she said.  

But Ellis’ effort to amend the bill, removing the restrictive provisions, failed 2-3. 

Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) at the Wyoming Legislature’s 2023 general session in Cheyenne. (Megan Lee Johnson /WyoFile)

Shoshone-Bannock tribal chairman Nathan Small also called in to oppose HB 83. 

“I’ve never entered into any agreements that would constrain or otherwise impede our management authority under the treaty,” Small said, “and we will not engage in a negotiated agreement as laid out in the proposed legislation.” 

Although tribal opposition is mounting, the now-embattled legislation still has its champions in the statehouse. Prior to the Eastern Shoshone withdrawing support, HB 83 was on the fast track to becoming law — it was the top legislative priority for Game and Fish and was co-sponsored by the Senate president, speaker of the House and a high-ranking member of the far-right Freedom Caucus. There’d been only one vote against the bill as it navigated the House. 

Primary sponsor Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander), who presented the bill to senators Tuesday, is among those still pushing for its passage. 

“There’s nothing in the [bill’s] language that requires the tribes to do anything,” Larsen told WyoFile. “We’re just trying to establish a foundation that allows the governor to negotiate with the tribes so that they can exercise their treaty rights. Without that authority, how do we get there?” 

House Bill 83 is scheduled for its first reading on the Senate floor on Wednesday.