By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin's Chippewa have suddenly announced plans to kill a single elk in the Clam Lake area over the next few days, marking the first time anyone has hunted an elk in the state in decades and sparking a nasty fight over the extent of the tribes' treaty rights.
The Department of Natural Resources has been working since the mid-1990s to re-introduce elk to Wisconsin. The Clam Lake herd is the only one in the state and currently has about 185 animals.
The tribes contend they have the legal right to harvest an elk under treaties they established with the government more than a century ago. DNR officials, though, maintain the treaties require the tribes reach an agreement with the agency on issuing hunting permits. DNR says the Chippewa have never tried to broker a deal on elk.
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"We're not happy with them doing this," DNR attorney Quinn Williams said of the elk hunt. "This just came out of left field. It just doesn't bode well for state-tribal consultation and communication."
Sue Erickson, a spokeswoman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, which represents the 11 Chippewa tribes in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, said the DNR has no legal grounds to challenge the hunt and taking a single elk won't hurt the population.
"It's part of the native, natural world and has a part in creating a healthy ecosystem," she said of hunting elk, known as Omashkooz to the tribes. "(The tribes) have been taught if you don't use things, they may be taken from you."
Elk disappeared from Wisconsin in the 19th century due to hunting and shrinking habitat as settlers turned prairies into farmland. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point brought the animal back to the state in 1995, setting 25 Michigan elk free near Clam Lake, south of Lake Superior. Over the years, the animals have become a major tourist attraction.
DNR regulations allow hunters to kill 10 elk once the population reaches 200 animals. Five of the 10 elk would be reserved for Chippewa hunters. Treaties signed in the early 1800s between the state's six Chippewa tribes and the government grant the tribes the right to 50 percent of the quota for any animal in the territory.
The DNR estimates it could reach the 200-animal hunt threshold by next year and is working on plans to introduce a second herd in Jackson County.
On Thursday, though, GLFIWC abruptly announced it had authorized a ceremonial permit allowing an intertribal hunting party to take a single bull elk between Thursday and Monday.
Erickson declined to say when the hunters would take to the woods or when the tribes would honor the elk.
"These members are considered by the Tribes to be exercising their treaty-guaranteed rights," GLIFWC Board of Commissioners Chairman Michael J. Isham Jr. wrote in a letter attached to the permit.
Williams said the DNR has discussed a ceremonial harvest with the Chippewa, but anticipated it would likely take place next year, once an agreement was in place.
Right now, there's no deal, he said, but the DNR won't try to block the hunt in court or cite any tribal elk hunters.
"We'd be in a tough position if we went into court and tried to argue one elk hurt the population," Williams said. "We still take the position this isn't authorized. This is the first time an elk will be harvested in the state of Wisconsin in modern times. It's a big deal. This could have been handled a little bit better with GLIFWC."
James Bolen, executive director of the Cable Area Chamber of Commerce, which promotes elk watching in the Clam Lake area, said the tribes' unilateral approach won't endear them to non-American Indians in the area. People are protective of the elk, he said.
"There's a lot of sorrow and concern every time there's a new (elk) death," Bolen said. "It would be nice if the tribes could better communicate to nontribal members what this is about. It just kind of was sprung on everyone. 'Oh, by the way, we're going to take an elk.'"