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A federal judge has ruled Chippewa tribes can hunt deer at night beginning next month across most of northern Wisconsin, a decision that restores a tribal right lost after the bands gave the land to the government in the 19th century.
The state Department of Natural Resources has long banned hunting deer at night out of safety concerns. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb issued an order Tuesday saying the tribes’ new night hunting regulations are stricter than the state’s rules for shooting wolves and deer at night. The regulations mandate that hunters take a 12-hour training course; hit a 6¼-inch bull’s eye from 100 yards eight out of 10 times in the dark; ensure hunting sites have earthen backstops; and submit shooting plans with safe zones of fire.
The ruling cements those rules in place and clears the way for the tribal night season to run from Nov. 1 to Jan. 4 in the so-called ceded territory, a 22,400 square-mile swath of northern Wisconsin the tribes handed to the U.S. government in 1837 and 1842.
“We’re pretty excited about this opportunity,” said Sue Erickson, a spokeswoman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees the Chippewa’s off-reservation treaty rights. “This is giving (the tribes) an expanded opportunity and it is part of their rights.”
DNR officials said they were disappointed with the ruling but would work to inform the public the night hunt is on.
The Chippewa currently hunt deer at night on their reservations, but they’ve pushed for years for a night hunt in the ceded territory. The tribes tried to convince Crabb in 1989 to exempt tribal hunters from the state prohibition during a court fight over treaty rights in the territory. The judge ruled in 1991 that night deer hunting is dangerous and the state ban applies to tribal hunters.
The Chippewa asked Crabb to reconsider in 2012, arguing the state must believe night hunting is safe since lawmakers allowed a night wolf hunt and the DNR instituted night shooting programs to slow chronic wasting disease in the mid-2000s. The tribes also presented their new safety regulations to the judge for approval.
Crabb ruled in 2013 that the tribes had failed to show circumstances had changed enough to reopen the case, but a federal appeals court ordered her to reconsider. It ruled there was little reason to believe safety concerns are a valid reason for denying a tribal night hunt, noting Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Michigan all allow such hunts and hunting has become safer over the last 20 years. The U.S. Supreme Court refused the state’s request to take the case earlier this year, which put it back in Crabb’s hands.
The judge analyzed the tribes’ regulations in her order Tuesday and concluded they’re much tighter than the rules the state had in place for the night wolf hunt and chronic wasting disease night shoots.
“Now, with the benefit of 24 years of state experience with night hunting, the tribes have been able to show that the prohibition on off-reservation night deer hunting is no longer necessary for public safety purposes, when properly regulated,” the judge wrote.
She took issue with the state’s argument that allowing a tribal night hunt gives the Chippewa a right that the general public doesn’t have. The tribes retained their hunting rights when they handed the territory over to the government in the 1800s and she blocked them in 1991 only because she felt the practice was dangerous, she wrote.
Erickson said she wasn’t sure how many tribal members would ultimately qualify to hunt deer at night.