BREAKING: Chief and governor sign hunting and fishing compact

Principal Chief Bill John Baker and Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin shake hands after signing a hunting and fishing compact on May 29 that will allow Cherokee Nation citizens to receive a combination hunting and fishing license that will be valid throughout the state. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. -- After two years of negotiations between the Cherokee Nation and the state of Oklahoma, the two governments have agreed on a three-year hunting and fishing compact, which was signed in a May 29 ceremony in Tahlequah.

Principal Chief Bill John Baker and Governor Mary Fallin signed the compact in a ceremony at the CN Tribal Complex.

"This is a great day in the Cherokee Nation. We get to exercise our sovereignty so that not only can each and every one of our citizens hunt and fish in the 14 counties (CN jurisdiction), but they also can trophy fish at Beaver's Bend (McCurtain County). They can go out and take the turkeys in western Oklahoma," Baker said during the signing ceremony. "Today, I am proud the Cherokee Nation is the first tribe to compact with the state in proper recognition of our long-held treaty rights to hunt and fish the lands within not only our jurisdictional boundaries but all 77 counties in Oklahoma."

He added the compact is a way for the CN and state to make the lives of all Oklahomans better.

"I see it as a win for the Cherokee people. I see it as a win for the people of the state of Oklahoma. I see it as a win for the hunters and fishers all over the state of Oklahoma," he said.

Fallin said it was a historic day for the state and CN. She thanked Chief Baker and the CN for working with the state "to do what's in the best interest of all the citizens of the state." She said the compact reflects a cooperative relationship between the state and CN and creates "dual-jurisdiction" for hunting and fishing licenses in the state.

"There are other states and other tribal nations that many times go down the path of litigating versus negotiating and cooperation. Over the last 11 or 12 years we have been working together to try to find a resolution so that we could do some good for everyone today. It is a big day for all of us," she said. "The compact is one of the first of its kind in the country, and I think can serve as model for other states and certainly other tribes in the state."

CN Attorney General Todd Hembree said the compact does not waive the tribe's sovereignty. It solidifies already established hunting and fishing rights given to the Cherokee Nation by treaty, and is a "win-win" for the Cherokee Nation and the state, he said.

The compact is also an alternative to fighting for hunting and fishing rights in court, which would cost hundreds of thousands dollars, if not millions of dollars, he said.

"This will be a model compact that I believe tribes across the United States will use. When we brought this concept up to the federal government they said every tribe in the nation should be doing this," Hembree said.

CN citizens will receive a combination hunting and fishing license that will be jointly issued by the state of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation. Hembree said the tribe is the one who will actually produce the licenses and do all of the administrative costs. He added the CN is working with the state to define what those administrative costs should be, but "they shouldn't be significant."

The compact states the CN will purchase and issue a minimum of 150,000 compact licenses for its Oklahoma residents between the ages of 16 and 65 years old at a cost of $2 a piece, which would equal $300,000 annually. The licenses should be ready to be issued on Jan 1, 2016, Hembree said.

Hembree said the tribe's hunting and fishing laws already mirror the state's hunting and fishing laws, so that was not a big issue in the negotiations.

"The license itself will go to all Cherokees in Oklahoma, so this is a huge benefit to at-large citizens," he said. "Also with that license is one free deer tag and one free turkey tag."

Hembree said some CN citizens may question why the tribe should "pay for a right we already have." He explained the other alternatives would be to do nothing and continue having CN citizens fined and arrested for hunting and fishing with their tribal citizenship (blue) cards or go to court and fight the state in a long and costly court battle.

The game licenses will be distributed to CN citizens using the CN Tax Commission's database.

"The Tax Commission does such a good job on car tags, especially now that they do it outside the (tribe's 14-county) jurisdiction. They have the ability to do it (distribute licenses) very, very well," he said.

For every license issued by the CN, the state will receive $2 for "the management and preservation" of the state's natural resources.

The usual cost for an annual combination hunting and fishing license in Oklahoma is $42. So, the cost to the tribe is "minimal" per license, Hembree said. Annual individual hunting and fishing licenses are $25 each.

"What makes this very advantageous to the state is that the licenses that we guarantee to issue will allow the state to avail themselves to federal funds ... for millions of dollars a year," Hembree said.

He explained in order for a state to qualify for federal Dingell-Johnson Act funds, which provides federal aid to states for management and restoration of fish having "material value in connection with sport or recreation in the marine and/or fresh waters of the United States," the state has to have $2 clear profit for every license it issues. Hembree said that rule prevents states from issuing every citizen a license in order to qualify for federal funding related to outdoor activities.

Because the CN is paying the state $2 per license, at no cost to the state, it qualifies the state to receive additional Dingell-Johnson funds, Hembree said, which means $3 to $4 million in additional federal funds for state wildlife conservation efforts every year.

Through the compact the state could also qualify for federal funds under the Pittman--Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, which was created as an excise tax that provides funds to states to manage animals and their habitats.

"It's a no-brainer for the state, and it's a great deal for the Cherokee Nation because were only paying $2 per issue. It's going to give us the ability to exercise our hunting and fishing treaty rights that we haven't been able to exercise for well over 100 years," Hembree said.