Crow tribe in Montana begins enforcing fishing laws

KEYWORDS: Montana fishing on the Crow reservation in Montana trout fishing permits to fish on Indian reservations fish and game laws fishing laws in Montana trout fishery fishing the Bighorn River Crow fish and game codes Crow tribe fish management trout streams Montana game codes Flathead Reservation fishing Fishing tribal waters fishing permit wild turkey permits hunting wild turkeys on the Crow Reservation wild turkey season on the Crow Reservation Willow Creek Reservoir fishing permit requirement Three Mile fishing Pryor Creek Soap Creek Black Canyon Little Bull Creek Big Bull Creek

AUTHOR: James Hagengruber, Billings Gazette staff writer

Crow Tribe game wardens have begun enforcing long-dormant fish and game laws across the 2.4 million acre reservation, and the tribe is negotiating with the state over a variety of fishing and hunting access issues.

The talks also involve the state’s crown jewel trout fishery and political equivalent of Jerusalem: the Bighorn River.

The tribe began requiring fishing permits two weeks ago on streams and reservoirs, not including the Bighorn, but tribal fees or permits for fishing the Bighorn are being considered, said the tribe’s fish and game director Bill Eastman.

Crow fish and game codes were updated in 2000, but were not consistently enforced until after the tribe’s new chairman, Carl Venne, took office in November. The reservation is crossed by numerous trout streams and its forests are prime habitat for many game species.

“We’ve got our game codes in place, and now we need to start generating some income for our Fish and Game Department,” Eastman said.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials met with the tribe April 15 to begin talks on the fish and game issues. The state is reviewing a proposed cooperation agreement, said Harvey Nyberg, Billings regional supervisor for FWP.

“We’re a long way away from any agreement at this point,” he said.

The state is pushing for a joint-licensing and law model similar to what’s in place on the Flathead Reservation, Nyberg said. This would allow for consistent state and tribal regulations, but also allow licensing fees to go back to the tribe.

Currently, there is little harmony between the seasons, bag limits and enforcement measures between the state and tribe. This leads to confusion for sportsmen and trouble for landowners on the reservation, Nyberg said.

Fishing tribal waters costs $20 per day or $40 per season for Montana residents. For nonresidents, the fee is $45 per day and $100 for the season. The tribe also requires a $10 recreation license to access tribal land.

The fishing permit includes access to Willow Creek Reservoir and Pryor Creek. Streams in the Bighorn, Pryor and Wolf mountains are off-limits to protect populations of pure strains of cutthroat, Eastman said. The closed areas also include Soap Creek, Black Canyon, and Little Bull and Big Bull creeks.

The tribe is also selling wild turkey permits for $25. The season closes May 28. In September, buffalo hunts will be available, though a specific price has not yet been set.

Permits are available at the Crow Administration Building in Crow Agency or through a game warden posted at the Willow Creek Reservoir. The tribe does not currently have criminal jurisdiction over nonmembers.

Fishing or hunting without a permit is a civil violation. For now, the offender is being given the choice of buying a permit or being told to leave.

A group of Billings anglers were caught off guard by the fishing permit requirement during a trip to Willow Creek Reservoir south of Lodge Grass two weeks ago. The group had caught a handful of small rainbow trout during the morning, but left when they were told they needed a permit, said one of the anglers, Jim Marley.

“That’s a pretty steep price they’re asking,” Marley said. “If you were fishing for five-pound fish, that would be one thing. But these fish are all a pound, maybe two.”

Marley said most of the other fishermen left the reservoir rather than pay the fee. “I guess they all said the same thing we did, ‘You gotta be kidding,’ ” he said. “I think they’ll just lose all the fishermen they have down there. I know we won’t go back.”

The Willow Creek Reservoir might have small trout, but that’s not the case on the nearby Bighorn River. Anglers from around the world come to fish the river, which is renown for its fat, wily, brown and rainbow trout.

The tribe closed the river to non-Indians in 1975, but was forced by the U.S. Supreme Court to reopen the fishery in 1981. The court ruled that Montana owned the banks and bed of the river.

The reopening caused mass demonstrations by tribal members and a handful of acts of vandalism at fishing access sites. Since then, the state and the tribe have been haggling over ownership of the water.

Many Crow are bitter that their tribe sees little of the money spent by wealthy anglers who use a resource flowing through the reservation. Crow Chairman Venne could not be reached for comment, but he has earlier stated his intentions to revisit the river’s management plan.

The issue is politically sensitive, and Eastman would only offer his personal opinions.

“Since the tribe lost the Bighorn River bed, from then until now, the tribe has never seen revenue off of that river, even though we own a percentage of the water,” Eastman said. “We should be compensated for our part of the water.”

The tribe is seeking to trade land near the Little Bighorn Battlefield for the popular Three Mile fishing access site on the Bighorn River. The site is owned by the National Park Service. The tribe has promised to keep open the access site, but it is considering charging a user fee.

The state said it clearly has jurisdiction over nontribal members on the actual river.

“There is a lot at stake here,” Nyberg said. “The Bighorn, mile for mile, is probably the most heavily fished river in Montana.”

Although the Bighorn River is a politically sensitive issue, Nyberg has faith both sides can come to consensus. Simply talking about cooperation on hunting and fishing issues is a good start, he said.

“This is emblematic of the progressive nature of (the tribe’s) new government,” Nyberg said. “We were never in these types of discussions before.”


James Hagengruber is a staff writer for the Billings Gazette

Copyright © The Billings Gazette

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