Grand Portage Chippewa cancels moose hunt under legal threat

The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has canceled its moose hunt for this fall, a decision that came after the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources initiated a legal process to try stop the hunt.

The move underscores tensions between the state and some Indian bands over whether to hunt moose as the animal's population continues to plummet.

Since DNR officials cancelled the state's moose hunt in February -- citing a declining moose population -- three Indian bands in northeast Minnesota have debated whether to proceed with their more limited tribal hunts. Last month, the Grand Portage band, in the far northeast tip of the state, decided to move ahead with a hunt this October.

"The estimated harvest was going to be 10 animals, which is a very tiny fraction, and it was going to be a bull only harvest," Tribal biologist Seth Moore said. "So this would ensure that there would be even less biological impacts of a hunt on the moose herd."

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"It's people hunting for nutrition, for healthy food... It has nothing to do with sport, with trophies, with putting antlers on the wall."

DNR officials estimate that the state's moose population stands at about 2,760, down about 1,500 from 2012. The DNR has launched a study to try to determine what is killing them in such high numbers. But most biologists agree the state's limited moose hunts have not had a significant impact on the decline.

Given that, Moore said the Grand Portage band felt it was important to continue with a limited subsistence hunt.

"It's people hunting for nutrition, for healthy food," he said. "It has nothing to do with sport, with trophies, with putting antlers on the wall. It's about people feeding their families and feeding their community."

The hunt was to occur in what's known as the 1854 ceded territory, a large swath of off-reservation land in the Arrowhead region where three Ojibwe bands -- the Bois Forte, Fond du Lac and Grand Portage -- retain hunting and fishing treaty rights.

But DNR officials argue that that under a court agreement between the state and the Grand Portage and Bois Forte bands, the tribes may not hold a moose hunting season if there is not a corresponding state season.

When the agency initiated a formal arbitration process to try to stop the hunt, the Grand Portage band decided to cancel it.

"We're pleased with their decision and we want to thank the Band and their members for their cooperation," DNR spokesperson Chris Niskanen said. "We believe they were obligated to cancel their hunt under terms of a 1988 agreement, signed by the state and tribes who are signatories to the 1854 treaty."

Under that agreement, both the Grand Portage and Bois Forte bands are paid about $2.6 million annually, in return for foregoing some of their treaty rights, Niskanen said.

But the Fond du Lac band, a third tribe in the region, is not subject to that agreement, and has decided to proceed with a hunt for up to 25 bull moose. The DNR objects to the hunt, but has decided not to take the band to federal court.

Fond du Lac chairwoman Karen Diver said the DNR asked the band to reconsider the hunt.

"We asked them to give us some biological data of why they would ask us not to hunt," Diver said. "They did not give us any biological impact data they might have from their biologists, so we decided to move forward."

Niskanen, the DNR spokesperson, acknowledged that hunting is not causing the moose's decline.

"But we believe strongly that the rate of the population decrease calls for a very precautionary approach of not hunting this obvious icon of the northwoods," Niskanen said.

That approach is frustrating to the Grand Portage band. Moore, the tribe's biologist, said it's based on social pressures, not biological research.

"So for that reason we think the state is in violation of the agreement with the Grand Portage band and the Bois Forte band, because they have an obligation to not close seasons unless there's a biological rationale to do that."

Moore said the band intends to work closely with the state to try to resolve their differences before next year's hunt. He said the band likely will hold a small moose hunt this fall on the reservation, something the DNR has no control over.

The Bois Forte band has decided not to hold a hunt.