VERNAL Just who is to enforce the law on 2 million acres that checkerboard eastern Utah's Uintah, Duchesene and Wasatch counties is under review but that doesn't mean the vast territory is a lawless zone open to hunters who want to roam the hills without a license.
Lt. Torrey Christophersen of the Division of Wildlife Resources says word is spreading erroneously that the area in the Book Cliffs and other exterior boundary lands of the Ute Reservation are void of any rule of law when it comes to hunting and fishing due to a ruling in recent hunting case.
"It's not going to be a no-man's land in the law enforcement arena," said Christophersen, DWR northeastern region law enforcement manager. "We are getting several calls from some people saying, 'We heard you can't do a thing, we are going hunting this fall.' ... That is absolutely not true."
Eight government entities, including the U.S. Attorney General's Office, are reviewing law enforcement options for the region because the Utah Court of Appeals has ruled the Ute Tribe has jurisdiction over the land.
Most of the land is currently under either U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management oversight. The management of big game and criminal jurisdiction over hunting and fishing violations has been handled by the Division of Wildlife Resources. However, the appellate ruling in Reber v. Utah gives the Ute Tribe, not the state of Utah, jurisdiction over wildlife law enforcement.
That's why DWR officials in the Uintah Basin want guidance from the U.S. Attorney General's Office on the best way to address the prosecution of non-Indians charged with hunting or fishing violations. Non-tribal members had previously gone to state court for prosecution, but they now appear to be headed to federal court, as is the case with those who belong to the tribe.
The jurisdictional status change came on the heels of a November 2005 appellate court ruling that determined the state had no authority to prosecute Rick Reber, 54, formerly of Lapoint, for hunting without a license and helping his son take a deer in the Book Cliffs in 2002.
Reber claimed his mixed-blood Uinta band heritage gave him the right to hunt and fish on Ute land. The Appeals Court made no finding on claims of Reber's heritage but did agree the alleged crime occurred within the exterior boundaries of the Ute Reservation.
Prosecutors with the Utah Attorney General's Office have appealed the ruling to the Utah Supreme Court. In the meantime, Christophersen said a decision must be made as to how and where crimes committed within the impacted areas will be prosecuted.
One avenue under consideration would be to prosecute alleged offenders under the Assimilative Crimes Act. The act makes it a federal criminal offense to commit an act on Indian lands that would be a crime if committed on lands subject to state jurisdiction.
A second option involves use of the Lacey Act, which makes it a federal offense to take fish or wildlife illegally on Indian lands in violation of federal, state or tribal law, Christophersen said.
Under either option, DWR officials could be cross-deputized to act in place of federal law enforcement officers and arrest suspected poachers.
Tribal officials said earlier they do not have enough employees or the financial resources to handle criminal prosecution of hunting and fishing violations, except for cases involving tribal members.
A Memorandum of Understanding signed between the state and the Ute Indian Tribe in 1999 gave DWR conservation officers authority for patrolling, issuing citations and making arrests of non-tribal members when hunting or fishing-related violations occurred within the exterior boundary area.
Non-Indian offenders were prosecuted in state court, while tribal members were seen in Ute Tribal Court or federal court.
Christophersen said offenders familiar with the state court system will be in for a rude awakening now that it appears they will go before a federal judge.
"In federal court there is no plea bargaining. Federal court is completely different," said Christophersen. "If it is somebody who has got a record and is used to the way the state operates ... they won't like" the federal rules.
Each year, the DWR's northeast region hands out an average of 750 hunting and fishing citations to non-tribal members within exterior boundaries of the reservation. The federal system handles considerably fewer hunting- and fishing-related violations in a year.
Sending all the cases involving non-tribal members to federal court could overwhelm the system, Christophersen said. That's why other agencies have offered to help carry some of that load.
"We did get a commitment from the county attorneys and the state Attorney General's Office that if it does get to that point they will come in and help so there is not a backlog," Christophersen said.The Utah Attorney General's Office expects to find out this month or next whether its petition to the Utah Supreme Court to hear the case will be granted. If it is, it will be late fall before the case makes it before the high court, even if it is put on the "fast track" because of the urgency of the situation.