It is the first weekend of October, opening day of Montana’s pheasant season, and the sound of shotguns echoes through the cattails at the Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge. Longtime Charlo resident Del Palmer, 80, sits at a picnic table with his wife, Bernice, at the campground they own adjacent to the refuge. A handful of friends stand around the table, which is overflowing with Styrofoam cups and cans of soda. Two large pots of coffee boil on the campfire grate and there are only a few oddball donuts left in the Valu-Pack open on the table.
Palmer is disappointed. He wipes powdered sugar from his mouth and says, “They don’t come around here anymore.” It would be easy to assume that Palmer means the ringneck pheasants, a bird population that has been stressed by the ongoing drought. But Palmer has a pheasant, which he shot earlier in the day, on the front seat of his pickup. He has shot his pheasant without the required tribal hunting permit, in direct violation of current game law.
Unlike most game law violators, however, Palmer publicizes his actions in the local newspaper each year, advertising his protest hunt at the campground. Palmer is lamenting the absence of state game wardens, who he hopes will give him a citation. Palmer hopes to challenge the State-Tribal Cooperative Agreements Act, which was signed in 1990 and is renewed every four years. The agreement provides for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) to regulate hunting and fishing activities by both tribal members and non-members within the boundaries of the Flathead Reservation.
According to Palmer, this contradicts a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Montana v. United States),which states in part: “Although the Tribe may prohibit or regulate hunting or fishing by nonmembers on land belonging to the Tribe or held by the United States in trust for the Tribe, it has no power to regulate non-Indian fishing and hunting on reservation land owned in fee by nonmembers of the Tribe.” This ruling involved the Crow Reservation in south central Montana, but Palmer believes the decision makes the agreement reached between the CSKT and the state of Montana in 1990 invalid.
In 1991, the first year of his protest, Palmer was cited for taking a game bird without a tribal permit. The case went to Lake County Court, where it was dismissed. The following year, Palmer was cited again and the case went to trial. Palmer was found innocent by a jury.
By 1993, the authorities had stopped showing up, so Palmer had a neighbor execute a citizen’s arrest. Yet again, nothing happened.
Of the State-Tribal Cooperative Agreements Act of 1990, Richard Janssen, information officer for the CSKT, says: “The agreement is a uniquely-crafted example of a Tribe(s) and the state developing a system in which natural resource management takes precedent over politics.” When asked if the state’s failure to successfully prosecute Palmer adds weight to Palmer’s argument ,Janssen says simply, “No.” A publication prepared by the Montana Legislature’s Committee on Indian Affairs, Tribal Nations of Montana: A Handbook for Legislators, notes: “On the Flathead Reservation, however, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes historically have always managed fish and wildlife resources throughout the reservation. As early as 1936, the tribal government established regulations; sold permits; employed professional biologists, technicians, and game wardens; and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on resource and wildlife management activities, habitat improvement, law enforcement, and research.”
The Tribe, it seems, would like to manage game populations on the reservation without regard for whether or not the land that game is found on is owned by tribal members or nonmembers. The wildlife knows no such boundaries.
This isn’t the first time that Palmer has butted heads with tribal authority. In 1972, Palmer was the first chairman of Flathead Residents Earning Equality (FREE) which was formed to challenge, among other things, a $5 tribal recreation permit. FREE eventually grew into Montanans Opposing Discrimination (MOD), which evolved into All Citizens Equal (ACE), in the early eighties. Palmer is an active participant in ACE, which is based in Polson.
The Montana Human Rights Network, which keeps tabs on ACE and other groups of its kind, issued a report that states, “We recognize that there are well-intended people who are active in the anti-Indian movement who do not perceive themselves or their cause to be racist. Unfortunately, looking at the total picture, we come to a different conclusion.”
Palmer counters, “We’ve been accused of being racist and being radical. All we want is to be equal. The Tribe keeps taking more and more. How much are we gonna let them have?”
Palmer doesn’t dispute the need for tribal permits pertaining to recreational activities on land owned by the Tribe. “I told my grandson, if he’s running around out on tribal land, he better have a permit,” Palmer says. “That’s only fair.” When asked the cost of the tribal hunting permit that he refuses to purchase, Palmer says, “I don’t know. I never bought one.” Currently, it costs $7.
Palmer’s next step is to present documents to the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Denver that advocates personal property rights and “wise use” of public lands. It is also noted for opposing Native American religious activity at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
At the entrance to the Palmer’s campground, a pickup pulls off Highway 212. The remaining protestors gathered around the campfire look up, hoping to see an official vehicle pull in, maybe some flashing lights. The truck accelerates back onto the highway and disappears toward the entrance to the wildlife refuge. The group drifts off, one by one. The afternoon passes without any citations being written. It becomes clear that at this year’s protest hunt, there will be more jelly donuts knocked off than pheasants.
“They’re just waiting for me to die,” Palmer says.
Until Palmer can get some response from the authorities, he will continue to write letters and pass out free donuts and shoot pheasants on private property without a tribal hunting permit. And he will encourage other private property owners to ignore the State-Tribal Cooperative Agreements Act. Palmer will keep waiting for some one to come along and write him a citation, to hand him the ticket that will get him into the main event.