Mike Nichols column: Take aim at big issues, not night deer hunting

11:06 PM, Nov. 30, 2012  |  Comments
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There's a big dispute in federal court in Madison right now over whether Indian tribes in Wisconsin should be allowed to use lights to kill deer outside the reservations at night.

They should - but that is not what is important.

Lots of people think it is. Any time you mention "treaty rights" in Wisconsin you can be sure there is going to be a fight, an enormous and bitter one. Think "spearfishing" if you doubt it.

In the current dispute, there have been some 60 affidavits and exhibits and briefs filed by either the tribes or the Department of Natural Resources just this month alone.

I have read most of the filings and, were I the federal judge in the case (I know, thank God I am not), I know exactly what I would say to the dozens and dozens of tribal members and state bureaucrats and attorneys immersed in the controversy:

Really? We're here about some venison?

There is more than enough venison in this state to go around. Wisconsin whitetails wander through suburban yards, hang out in our parks, even visit the inside of an occasional store. You know how many deer non-Indians kill in Wisconsin each year? An average of 470,000. You know how many deer tribal members took during current daytime hunting hours in 2010 in the so-called ceded territory outside the reservations? Around 1,400.

Sure, they might take more if allowed to hunt at night with lights, a practice the state calls shining. I don't like the practice but, as the tribes argue, Wisconsin law does now allow it with the hunting of wolves and coyotes. And anyway, everyone knows this isn't really a fight over how many deer might be killed.

And it's not really about safety either. All kinds of places allow hunting of deer - not to mention everything from raccoon to coyotes to weasels - at night, albeit with lots of oversight. There's no indication the tribes will be reckless. Quite the opposite. The tribes argue that, thus far, only 74 members are eligible for a night hunting permit. And they argue convincingly, this isn't really about hunting for sport. It's about culture. And it's about the need for "subsistence" and commerce.

Now there is a topic worth discussing.

How come the only time we ever really get riled up about issues involving the tribes is when it involves either treaty rights or casinos? There are 11 federally recognized tribes in Wisconsin, and many of their members are both unemployed and impoverished. Unemployment rates range from 25 percent for the St. Croix Chippewa to a whopping 93 percent for the Sokaogon Chippewa, they point out in their own pleadings in the deer litigation. What's more, most tribal members who have jobs work in the public sector and many more have low-wage jobs that place them below the poverty line. There's been very little private-sector economic development.

Fewer Native Americans graduate from high school or college. Disproportionate numbers have chronic diseases of the heart, or diabetes. They die more often from cancer and cirrhosis and suicide. And here's one other thing: The teen birthrate for mothers of American Indian/Alaska Native infants is three times higher than average in the three-state area of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Federal courts have long held that the tribes, through long-ago treaties, retained rights to hunt in the ceded territories that make up much of Wisconsin. Those rights may well extend to nighttime deer hunting.

It might be nice if the tribes waited a year so everyone knows they are out there. After all, the state argues this is about process and timing as well as safety. But what would be even nicer is if all this legal talent and brain-power take aim, whatever the time of day or night, at some of the bigger and more elusive problems for a change.

What's your take on the Packers Family Night change?

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