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State Seeks Court Decision on Tribal Inland Hunting and Fishing Rights Dispute

September 17, 2003

           Lansing, MI - Attorney General Mike Cox announced today that his office has filed pleadings in federal court asking for judicial resolution of an inland hunting and fishing rights dispute between the state and five Michigan tribes over whether the tribes' legal rights to hunt and fish on nearly 40 percent of Michigan's land acreage have expired.

           The dispute revolves around language in the 1836 Treaty of Washington giving the tribes rights until "the land is required for settlement." The state is asserting that hunting, fishing and other rights retained by the tribes in the inland areas covered by the Treaty have expired in virtually all non-reservation areas. The land mass in question includes much of the Lower Peninsula north of the Grand River and the eastern half of the Upper Peninsula and totals approximately 13,837,207 acres, or roughly 37 percent of the acreage in the state.

           The tribes are expected to claim that they retain all of those rights wherever land is open to the public for hunting and fishing today. This would include all public lands in the Treaty area, as well as private lands, that are open to the public for hunting and fishing.

           In recent years, the five Treaty tribes have implemented the licensing and regulation of tribal hunting and inland fishing seasons for public and private lands without a court decision affirming their right to do so. The tribal laws allow greater opportunities to tribal members than state law in terms of season, species, and regulations. These greater opportunities are extremely controversial among the public and needlessly expose tribal members to the risk of prosecution under state law.

           "The current confusion over inland tribal hunting and fishing rights benefits no one and casts doubt over Michigan's ability to appropriately manage its natural resources," said Cox. "For the sake of all parties involved, and so we can ensure proper protection of our natural resources, this legal question must be solved."

           The Attorney General has taken this action at the request of Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director K.L Cool and is supported by the Governor's office.

           "Legal uncertainty is bad public policy," Cool said. "Michigan's natural resources need and deserve clear, concise management. Our state needs to understand its legal management jurisdiction. We look forward to achieving legal resolution to this long-standing uncertainty."

           Litigation over the meaning and effect of the Treaty began in state courts in 1971 and in federal courts in 1973 in connection with disputes over tribal member use of large mesh gill nets on the Great Lakes. Both the Michigan courts and the federal courts addressed the issue of whether the tribes' Great Lakes rights had been extinguished because the Treaty area had been "required for settlement." Both court systems found that the Great Lakes would never be "settled" within the meaning of the Treaty and, therefore, that these tribes' right to fish in those waters would always exist. The courts, however, did not address the question of inland hunting and fishing rights.

           There are currently five federally recognized Indian tribes that are political successors to the signatories to the Treaty: the Bay Mills Indian Community in Brimley, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in Peshawbestown, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Petoskey, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Sault Ste. Marie.

For further information contact: Sage Eastman
517-373-8060 (Office)
State of Michigan, Department of Attorney General

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