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An Oregon tribe and state leaders have agreed to co-manage fish and wildlife across a large swath of southwest Oregon, in what they say is a monumental arrangement and the first of potentially more comprehensive management partnerships between the state’s wildlife agency and tribal nations.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission on June 17 unanimously agreed to a framework agreement with the Coquille Indian Tribe, giving it more power in fish and wildlife management throughout a five-county area of southwest Oregon while also ensuring tribal members are able to fish, hunt, gather and trap on public lands for subsistence or ceremonial purposes under tribal regulations that the tribe and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) develop together.

“This is partially about the cultural restoration of my tribe,” Brenda Meade, chair of the Coquille Tribal Council, told commissioners. “But it is also about our tribal government working with the state as cooperative sovereigns on species restoration. It's about collaboration and sharing of resources.”

Drastically declining numbers of Chinook salmon — a species that Coquille tribal citizens and other Indigenous people in the state have long relied on for cultural, spiritual and subsistence reasons — prompted the tribe last year to declare a tribal emergency and pushed state and federal leaders to more aggressively work to protect salmon populations returning to the more than 1,000 square-mile Coquille River watershed.

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That also led the tribe to request that the state formally agree to give it more authority in conservation and management issues in the rivershed, because, the tribe said, it had the resources and stake to do so. The tribe and others had also criticized ODFW for not adequately working to increase Chinook salmon numbers in the Coquille River. The agency admitted it didn’t have the resources needed to fully address the protection and restoration needs of the watershed.

“There is too much work for one agency and too few resources if left to only the state,” Meade said. “Coquille people have a sacred duty to care for fish and wildlife that aligns with the mission of (ODFW) as well.”

Many local governments and other area organizations near the river that are similarly worried about decreasing salmon populations sent letters to Gov. Kate Brown last year, urging her to support the tribe’s proposal to partner in managing the region’s fish and wildlife.

Brown supported the agreement, saying in a June 15 letter to the commission that it was an “important step” in “dismantling systems of racism and colonialism.” ODFW also recommended that the commission approve the proposal.

“This agreement presents an important opportunity for the State of Oregon to collaborate with the Tribe on fish and wildlife management, leveraging tribal expertise, knowledge, experience and resources. It also represents a significant step toward enhancing and affirming tribal sovereignty,” Brown said in her letter encouraging the commission to approve the agreement. “I welcome similar conversations between the State and other tribal governments.”

Still, about a dozen conservation groups, other organizations and individuals opposed the partnership or asked that a vote be postponed during testimony on June 17 and through submitted written comments, citing concerns that the agreement could lead to tribal commercial fishing or hunting, was drafted without adequate public input, ceded too much authority to the tribe, or gave “preferential treatment” to tribal citizens over non-Indigenous Oregonians.

Helena Linnell, the Coquille Tribe’s biological operations and planning manager, secures a newly netted salmon in Ferry Creek last October, while her helpers turn toward the next target. Courtesy of the Coquille Indian Tribe

Three other Oregon tribes — the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians publicly supported the agreement.

The Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw and Cow Creek tribes originally withheld support until the proposal’s language was recently changed to acknowledge that, since the agreement’s boundaries overlap with the ancestral territories of other tribes, the boundaries of potential future tribal agreements with the state could overlap with the Coquille tribe’s management area. The updated language also guaranteed that the agreement wouldn’t diminish any other rights or privileges of other tribes.

“It is critical that both Tribal and State agencies work on a government-to-government basis to manage fish and wildlife to ensure that there are healthy and harvestable levels of resources across the State,” CTCLUSI Tribal Council Chair Brad Kneaper wrote in a June 12 letter indicating support for the co-management proposal after the changes were made. “This agreement is a good example of how these efforts can be implemented.”

‘We hope it can serve as a model’

The co-management agreement comes as some Oregon tribes have already sought more authority or agreements with state agencies in co-managing natural resources or wildlife in traditional homelands or on tribal lands. Last year, Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes wrote to Brown pushing her to ensure they are given a stronger voice in setting water use policies in the state over the coming decades.

Also, federal legislation proposed by Oregon congressional Democrats late last year would restore the power of the Siletz and Grand Ronde tribes to regulate hunting and fishing on their own lands and allow them to re-negotiate restrictive agreements with the state, which were made as a condition of regaining federal recognition in the 1980s and have limited their ability to manage those activities.

With the pending federal legislation, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians said in a June 9 letter of support to the commission that it was negotiating a similar hunting, fishing, gathering and trapping agreement proposal with ODFW.

ODFW has been expanding its work and partnerships with Oregon tribes in recent years, Davia Palmeri, the agency’s conservation policy coordinator, said on June 17. But that’s typically been through “one-off agreements” like shellfishing and off-reservation hunting agreements. The partnership with the Coquille is “more expansive and comprehensive” than any other partnerships with an Oregon tribe, she said.

“We hope it can serve as a model to be replicated between the department and other tribes in the future,” Palmeri said.

For the nearly 1,200-member Coquille Tribe, the agreement with the state means tribal citizens will be guaranteed the opportunity to harvest fish and game for subsistence and ceremonial reasons, just as their ancestors have done for thousands of years.

“The history books might not have told you that we have been doing this for millennia and we were managing the land when settlers came,” Coquille tribal citizen Jennifer Procter Andrews said during testimony at the commission’s meeting. “We were doing it sustainably because why would we do it any other way? We're always planning for the future generations and generations who come after them.”

Brenda Meade, chair of the Coquille Tribal Council, middle, speaks on June 17 at an Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting. Courtesy of ODFW

Under the agreement, tribal members won’t need to buy a hunting or fishing license from ODFW when harvesting fish or game within the agreement’s five-county area — Coos, Curry, Lane, Douglas and Jackson counties — and instead will have to get a tribal license to hunt or fish. Tribal citizens will otherwise have to follow existing ODFW regulations, with any violations passed to the Coquille tribal court for potential prosecution.

The 200 to 300 Coquille tribal citizens who buy state hunting, fishing or trapping licenses annually but will no longer need to do so make up a tiny fraction of the more than 100,000 people who bought a hunting or fishing license for that five-county area, Palmeri said.

Under the agreement, the tribe and state will meet annually to determine harvest limits for tribal subsistence and ceremonial use, as well as to discuss management issues, share data and information, and discuss how to coordinate the sharing of resources and expertise to protect and restore wildlife numbers or habitat. The tribe will then determine how and when those species can be harvested.

The current agreement doesn’t allow for commercial harvesting but says the tribe could apply for commercial harvest exemptions. It also doesn’t allow for tribal members to hunt, fish or trap on private property without permission.

Palmeri told the commission the agreement will mean increased “pace and scale” for habitat restoration goals in the area.

“The tribe has access to more and different resources than the department does,” she said.

The co-management agreement, Meade said, will also allow the tribe to bring in other partners and use other sources of funding, like federal grants, on conservation projects, increasing the money the two have to spend on protecting and restoring habitat and wildlife.

Coming full circle

The tribe first sought such a comprehensive agreement after ODFW told the tribe last May that the Coquille River would again be closed to Chinook salmon fishing because of critically low populations while presenting a long list of problems — like habitat degradation and invasive species predation — that had contributed to the fall Chinook salmon run’s sharp decline, Meade said.

“The words that they were using there that day were ‘near extinction numbers,’” she said. “We recognized that (ODFW) needed our support and our help. Our river needed more boots on the ground, more voices lifted and more resources than (the agency) had.”

That led to a tribal emergency declaration, as well as the tribe working to gather support from and build partnerships with the area's local governments, port authorities and other organizations.

While working on the agreement proposal, the Coquille Tribe and ODFW had already started informally cooperating last year to more aggressively work to increase the Chinook salmon numbers in the Coquille River and its tributaries.

Brenda Meade, chair of the Coquille Tribal Council, left, helps release juvenile Chinook salmon into the Coquille River system on June 15. The juvenile salmon resulted from a spawning project last fall conducted by the tribe and state. Courtesy of the Coquille Indian Tribe

The partnership included initiatives like increased electrofishing to decrease the population of invasive and ravenous smallmouth bass and the construction of obstacles to prevent seals from gorging on salmon navigating chokepoints to get upstream.

It also included an effort last fall led by the tribe and community volunteers to capture pairs of Chinook salmon as they returned from the ocean to be transported to a nearby hatchery to ensure they spawn. That effort resulted in the capture of 24 breeding pairs, a significant increase from the previous year when ODFW was solely responsible for the task.

Earlier in the week before the commission’s vote, the tribe released the first 1,000 juvenile Chinook salmon resulting from last fall’s spawning project to swim downstream and, according to tribal leaders, return someday to the Coquille River system from the Pacific Ocean as adults to spawn.

Linda Mecum, a Coquille tribal elder and former council member, testified in support of the measure. She, along with others, spoke of how the tribe responsibly hunted, fished and gathered on the land before settlers arrived. She also spoke of the tribe being terminated and how Coquille people were expected to abandon the practices and culture of their ancestors in favor of assimilation.

And despite regaining federal recognition years later, the tribe was still limited in how it could care for the resources it had relied on since time immemorial, Mecum said. She didn’t know whether the tribe would ever regain the ability to manage resources treasured by Coquille people.

“We are a fortunate people, for we have survived,” Mecum said. “It feels like we have come full circle at last.”

Lead photo: Brenda Meade, chair of the Coquille Tribal Council, shakes hands with members of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission on June 17 after the commission approved a co-management agreement between the tribe and state. Courtesy of ODFW

This story is co-published by Underscore News and Indian Country Today, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.

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ContributorChris previously covered tribal affairs in the Pacific Northwest for Underscore and ICT. He is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and descendant of the Leech Lake Band...