State wants fed court to stop Tribal Court from hearing elk case

YAKIMA, Wash. — The state is asking a federal court to block the Yakama Nation Tribal Court from hearing a lawsuit pitting a tribal member against the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Earlier this month, the Tribal Court ruled it had jurisdiction to hear a civil lawsuit brought by a tribal member who maintains the Wildlife Department is responsible for preventing an elk herd from damaging a sacred burial site.

The site is on private land east of Ellensburg near the state’s Colockum Wildlife Area. The attorneys for the Wildlife Department originally asked the Tribal Court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing it lacked authority over the off-reservation site and the state officials named in the suit.

But Chief Judge Ted Strong ruled that tribal members have the right to seek protection of ancient burial sites, even off-reservation, and ordered both sides to hold a settlement hearing.

Monday, the state Attorney General’s Office responded by filing a complaint in the U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington seeking to block the Tribal Court case from continuing on grounds the court lacks jurisdiction.

In the filing documents, the state’s attorneys say the lawsuit is the first time the Wildlife Department was notified the elk were damaging burial grounds, although they had been working with the landowner who was concerned about the elk damaging her pastures.

Unhappy with the options offered by wildlife staff last year, the landowner invited two enrolled Yakamas to her property to hunt in hopes that it would scare off the herd. However, the two hunters and the landowner were subsequently charged with felony unlawful hunting for allegedly shooting several elk without proper permits. The tribal members’ treaty rights to hunt outside the state-set seasons do not extend to private land under state law.

One of those hunters, Ricky Watlamet, also known as Shay-Ya-Boon-Il-Pilpsh, later filed the lawsuit against the state after seeing the damage to the property.

State attorneys claim that Watlamet filed his lawsuit in Tribal Court to “harass state officials in a bad faith attempt to create leverage in the criminal proceedings against him and his co-defendants.”

Watlamet’s attorney, Jack Fiander, filed a motion Tuesday, asking the federal court to dismiss the state’s case. He argued the precedent is to let the Tribal Court case play out before the question of jurisdiction is brought to the federal court.


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