The number of settlers increased in Washington by the mid-1800s. At that time, the United States government negotiated treaties with Washington Indian tribes for the peaceful settlement of the territory. The treaties established reservations for the exclusive use of the tribes. In addition, the treaty tribes kept their right to hunt, fish, and gather on lands off of the reservation. All treaties contain similar language reserving the right to hunt, fish, and conduct other traditional activities on lands off of the reservations:
The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians in common with the citizens of the territory…together with the privilege of hunting…on open and unclaimed lands.
Treaties are formal contracts between nations. Treaty rights belong to tribes. They are not the property of any individual tribal member. Only tribal members may exercise treaty hunting rights. Members of one tribe cannot exercise the treaty rights of another tribe. Treaty tribes in Washington establish hunting regulations through their own government processes.
Federal and state courts have ruled that public land is “open and unclaimed” unless it is being put to a use that is inconsistent with tribal hunting. Private property is not considered to be “open and unclaimed,” but it must be obvious that someone owns the property.
There are 24 tribes that have off-reservation hunting rights within Washington State. There are also many tribes in Washington that do not have treaties or rights to hunt off of their reservations.
Both tribal and state-licensed hunters hunt game animals across the state. It is important that Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the tribes work together to manage wildlife. This can be complicated because tribal ceremonial and subsistence hunting and state recreational hunting are based on different cultural heritages and legal frameworks.
Many tribal governments take an active role in the management of wildlife resources. Most tribes with off-reservation hunting rights develop their own regulations and management strategies. In recent years, WDFW and various tribes have worked together to develop management plans for wildlife populations and to re-build game populations.