Chippewa tribes planning to shoot a Clam Lake elk

Madison — Amid speculation that they would do so, six Wisconsin Chippewa tribes announced last week that an intertribal hunting party would harvest one elk in the Wisconsin ceded territory. State officials said the hunting party would target the Clam Lake elk herd, and would hunt the animal between Sept. 13-17.

Tribal officials said the animal would be killed for “ceremonial purposes.”

A statement was issued by Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission Board of Commissioners chairman Micheal J. Isham Jr. last Thursday regarding the taking of the elk for an upcoming intertribal Thanksgiving ceremony:

“It has been my sincere honor to issue a ceremonial harvest permit for an intertribal hunting party to harvest one bull elk (omashkooz) in the Wisconsin ceded territory. Ojibwe tribes consider this harvest to be a matter of spiritual and ceremonial significance in the fulfillment of their cultural obligation to aki (the earth) and all that She provides. As the Anishinaabe pay respect and honor their relationship to the omashkooz, they express gratitude to the important connection that elk play in a healthy ecosystem. 

“The tribes are truly grateful to all their partners who have played a role in the reintroduction of this species. This ceremonial harvest is an integral aspect of the continued success of the reintroduction project based upon the principals of Anishinaabe teachings, traditions, and customary tribal law.”

Sue Erickson, GLIFWC public information director in Odanah, said one tribal hunter would possess the single kill permit from the bands, but that several tribal members would be present to observe the hunt. Results likely wouldn’t be publicized, she said.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp and DNR Executive Assistant Scott Gunderson both were clearly upset the morning of Sept. 11 when they said GLIFWC informed them of the tribal intent to kill a bull elk from the fledgling Clam Lake herd in Sawyer and Ashland counties.

Gunderson said the DNR had been “talking all week” with GLIFWC in an effort to talk the tribes out of their decision to shoot an elk.

“The tribes let us know they intend to take a ceremonial elk,” Gunderson said in a phone interview Sept. 11. “We’re (DNR) not keen on the idea. We don’t have a season, we don’t have a quota, and there are some safety issues. We have bear season under way, archery deer season opens Sept. 15, so we have people in the woods scouting. We have people out bugling to elk, listening to them bugle, and looking for elk.”

The DNR was in the process of drafting a letter to GLIFWC the morning of Sept. 11. Stepp sent the letter that afternoon.

“We don’t have to issue them a permit, but they are saying they will go out Thursday (Sept. 13) to hunt. We don’t believe we legally have standing to stop it,” Gunderson said.

The DNR had decided as of Sept. 11 that it would not ask state conservation wardens to issue any citations for illegal elk hunting should a warden see a tribal member shoot an elk. However, citizens in both northern counties who had heard about the tribal decision said the DNR should issue citations and attempt to reopen the Voigt case.

“We believe we’d lose in court,” Gunderson said. “Believe me, we’ve looked at every angle and we’ve been talking all weekend with Jim Zorn,” the GLIFWC executive director.

Elk are not listed in the Voigt court case decision as a species the state must share with the six Chippewa tribes. Elk were restored to Wisconsin after Judge Barbara Crabb ruled on the Voigt case.

Gunderson said Zorn understood the DNR’s safety concerns and said the person who gets tribal permission to shoot an elk will understand firearms safety principals. “If they do shoot an elk, we asked them not to shoot a cow, which can reproduce, or a big bull,” Gunderson said.

The state’s elk herd took root in 1995 with the release of 25 head brought in from Michigan. The herd has faced mortality challenges from bears, wolves, vehicles, and health issues in growing to about 182 animals prior to this year’s calving season.

Stepp’s letter

In her letter to Zorn and GLIFWC, Stepp wrote:

I write to you today to express deep concern and disappointment about your premature and unilateral decision sanctioning the taking of a wild elk.

The Department is aware that the Voigt Intertribal Task Force (Task Force) and Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) have authorized the issuance of a ceremonial harvest permit on behalf of the Ojibwe bands (the Tribes) for a bull elk this year, which will be issued shortly to accommodate an anticipated harvest later this week. I am deeply troubled by the lack of consultation and consensus-building regarding the issuance of this ceremonial permit. We believe that this issuance may not be consistent with the letter of the Voigt case (Lac Courte Oreilles Indians v. State of Wis., 775 F. Supp. 321(W.D. Wis. 1991). I am also concerned about the unique safety issues that such a harvest presents, as well as the potential biological implications.  Accordingly, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR or Department) does not condone or agree with the issuance of this ceremonial harvest permit.

While we are aware that the Tribes have expressed interest in a potential ceremonial harvest of elk through the Department's Elk Committee, the Department was not appraised of or given the opportunity to consult regarding such a harvest for this year. In a memo dated July 12, 2012 from GLIFWC biologist Jonathan Gilbert to the Task Force, he stated:

“Elk management continues to be a success story for tribal co-management activities with the Wisconsin DNR. We approach decision making in a consensus fashion and have been successful thus far in reaching consensus in all management decisions. It is my hope that this will continue.”

The unilateral action taken by the Task Force does not represent any sort of consensus-based decision making, and does not provide the Department any time to discuss the issue with the Task Force, or to adequately inform the public who will be out in the area over the coming week.

I am also concerned that, while the Task Force has apparently agreed to utilize the substantially similar terms in place for the ceremonial harvest of deer under the Off Reservation Model Code (the Code), there is currently  no stipulation or agreement with regard to elk, nor has there been discussion of when harvest of this still recovering species should begin. In addition to the ceremonial taking of elk being at best tenuous under the Voigt stipulations, this action is a setback for the state-tribal relationship and partnership on elk that has been steadily improving over the years. This relationship is most recently reflected in the significant tribal involvement in the State's "Elk Management Plan," which this unilateral action by the Task Force appears to directly conflict with in terms of building a trusting partnership for management of elk.

Finally, I have serious concerns related to the unique health and safety issues that this harvest presents to the State. As you know, this is a species for which there was no harvest in recent memory, and so therefore the public's awareness of and preparation for measures to ensure the safety of folks in the woods is significantly reduced. We intend to pull our wildlife staff and volunteers who would normally be out in the Clam Lake area engaging in "elk calls" and other herd-monitoring activities to ensure that no unintended accidents occur. Additionally, we are concerned that the shooting of an established bull could disrupt harems and breeding patterns.

As you know, the State has a management responsibility as it relates to Tribal harvest in the exercise of their usufructuary treaty rights for all species, including elk, and we will continue to consult with the Tribes in hopes of coming to consensus on how to proceed with any potential regulations governing a future Tribal harvest of elk. However, in the interim, I am deeply concerned regarding the lack of consultation and communication on the proposed ceremonial harvest of elk this fall, and the Tribe proceeds at its own risk in moving forward.

It had been my hope that the first harvest of elk in Wisconsin – after its long absence – could have been celebrated together. I am saddened that the opportunity to demonstrate cooperation and shared purpose will be lost if the Tribes move forward with this decision.

Associate editor Tim Spielman contributed to this report.

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