By Sarah Elmquist Squires

Managing Editor

Brandy deCola (right) stood with a gorup of protestors in front of the United States Post Office in Ft. Washakie Wednesday morning. (photo by Carl Cote)

Despite pushback from Eastern Shoshone Tribal members, a bill that would pave the way for the state to some day regulate Indigenous hunting rights was approved in a split vote by the Wyoming Senate Committee of the Whole with an 18-12 vote on Thursday. 

The bill comes on the heels of the 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Herrera v. Wyoming that found off-reservation hunting rights outlined in a treaty that pre-dates Wyoming’s statehood and the creation of national parks would stand. Following that ruling, state leaders began talks with the Eastern Shoshone Business Council about a bill that would provide for state regulations with tribes for hunting, fishing, and gathering on unoccupied lands with tribal approval. Earlier this month, the Business Council pulled back and wrote Gov. Mark Gordon, stating the council opposed the legislation. On Wednesday, tribal members gathered in Fort Washakie to protest both the bill, and the idea that their Business Council leaders had negotiated the legislation in the first place. 

On Thursday, Senate leaders sparred over the proposed regulations. Supporters said the bill would simply give the governor the tools needed to create regulatory compromises with tribes on hunting. Opponents, including several of the bill’s authors, said adopting it would harm tribal relations. 

“This was a good-faith effort to give our governor authority to negotiate into agreements with our tribes,” Senator Wendy Schuler (R-Uinta County) said of the measure. Without it, she said, “We could end up in another court case, and we really don’t want that to happen.” 

Senator Affie Ellis (R-Laramie County), one of the bill’s original sponsors who later voted against it, said originally it sought to find compromise with tribes. “Instead of having to rely on tribal members to test the bounds of what would constitute an unoccupied area [that was a key point in the Herrera case], subjecting themselves to potential criminal charges, that maybe our state and these tribes could work together to resolve some of those issues,” she said. She attempted to amend the bill and remove language that states tribes would adopt game codes and seasons that resembled those imposed by the states, would require any hunting agreements to be ratified by the legislature, and would sunset the bill in 2027. 

Another sponsor and local Senator Cole Case, who voted against the bill, spoke in favor of Ellis’ proposed amendment, noting that he’d heard from many tribal members who were upset about the regulations. “It’s a very proud thing for me to be able to represent them,” he said of tribal members. “These people are sovereign. They have rights that predate our granting of statehood.” Early on in discussions over the bill, he said, it was an effort to find some friendly cooperation between the tribes and the state around hunting regulations. However, “The leaders of the tribe asked me not to support this bill. And I’ve heard from many, many tribal members who are very upset,” he said. Ellis’ amendment was a chance to move forward without such a “prescriptive” approach to negotiations, he explained. 

The amendment failed with a vote of 19-9, and after the majority of debate being heard over the amendment, the vote on the bill in its entirety didn’t draw as many comments. “One of the tribes are adamantly against this bill,” Case noted. “I wish this was going in a different direction.” 

Senator Mike Gierau (D-Teton County) said while he respected Case’s position, he felt “all this bill does is give our chief executive a template” to negotiate with tribes who’d like to sort out hunting regulations. 

“The intent of this was good,” Ellis said of the original thoughts behind the bill. “In its present form, it’s certainly not something I could support … I can remember long ago, when I was a young legislator, some of the more seasoned legislators would always say ‘Wait until you have to vote against your own bill.’ And here we are today,” she said, adding she felt its passage would push the state several steps, and years of relationship building with tribes, back.