Wisconsin legislators should pay attention to Chippewa bands' message 03.19.13

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Wisconsin legislators should pay attention to Chippewa bands' message

By Ernst-Ulrich Franzen of the Journal Sentinel March 19, 2013


Keep poking a stick into a beehive, and you shouldn't be surprised if a couple of bees come out with their stingers at the ready. In this case, the Chippewa bands of northern Wisconsin are the bees and the Wisconsin Legislature - more precisely, Republicans in the Legislature - is the guy with the stick.

The Journal Sentinel's Paul Smith reported in Tuesday morning's paper that the six bands of Chippewa in northern Wisconsin have declared intentions to spear a near-record number of walleyes during the annual spring harvest. The high declaration by the Lac du Flambeau band will terminate an agreement it has had with the state since 1997.

Tribal officials were unavailable for comment Monday, but it's no secret that they have been unhappy with two bills approved by the Legislature over the last year: one that permits wolf hunts and another that streamlines the permitting process for an iron mine in northern Wisconsin. Smith also reported that several tribal spokesmen have pointed to a lack of consultation in recent years between the state and tribes on natural resource issues, including the wolf hunt. By law, the tribes must be consulted on natural resource issues in the ceded territory. 

As noted, the tribes are well within their rights, and maybe this isn't payback. Maybe it's just a need to harvest more walleye in a bad economy. But their action could well hurt the tourism industry in northern Wisconsin, which has been on shaky ground of late thanks to the Great Recession and dropoff in snowfall, and the tribes may be sending a message.

If that's the case, legislators should pay attention. Leaders such as Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and Rep. Robin Vos could have done a better job of communication with the tribes and could have been more careful in crafting the two bills, making sure that more tribal concerns were addressed. It's possible that it wouldn't have made a difference. But the  tribes have every right to be expected to be treated as equal partners, and a stronger effort should have been made.

Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp called the tribe's increase "drastic" and a "significant, unprecedented and a challenge to long-standing partnerships," DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said.

The DNR also said it "aims to work with the tribes in an effort to negotiate a reduction in their declarations."

 We wish Stepp and the DNR luck. No one wants to see relations in northern Wisconsin worsen to the point of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when tense protests occurred at boat landings. And we hope to see reason on both sides. The Chippewa could help by rethinking their quotas.

Of course, the Legislature could help by putting down that stick.