The case of a Uintah County deer hunter, whose tribal membership is in question, has created a confusing tangle of land ownership and tribal hunting rights that the Utah Supreme Court must now straighten out and make sense of.
Justices heard oral arguments Wednesday in the case of Rickie Reber, a 54-year-old hunter originally convicted in 2002 of hunting without a license after he aided his 13-year-old son in taking a trophy buck without a state permit. Reber claims a 4 percent blood tie to the Native American line and that he is a member of a non-federally recognized Uintah band. He also argues that the killing of the deer took place on tribal land, and given his heritage, did not need a state hunting permit.
However, attorneys for the state say the land, which is managed by the BLM with hunting and fishing activities regulated by the state Division of Wildlife, is about 20 miles away from Ute tribal lands. Reber claims the Uintah band was ousted from the Ute tribe some time ago, but remains a cohesive group.
The case has illustrated the confusion that can be caused by land and tribal designations when it comes to hunting and fishing rights. Maps produced by a national map publisher differ in geographic boundaries than maps produced by the state.
The Utah Court of Appeals overturned Reber's conviction, stating that the site of the hunt was indeed on tribal land. However, an attorney for the Ute Indian Tribe says the tribe agrees with the state in that the land is not theirs but rather managed by the state and federal BLM.
Assistant Utah Attorney General Joanne Slotnik said typically tribes have jurisdiction in which both the perpetrator and the victim of a crime are tribal members. In this case, there was no tribal victim.
"The only victim in this case is the deer and the deer is not an Indian," Slotnik told the justices.
Slotnik said the appeals court erred when it concluded the killing of the deer took place on tribal land. Charles Kaiser, attorney for the Ute Indian Tribe, told justices his clients do not lay claim to that piece of land.Comment on this story
However, Reber's attorney, Michael Humiston, said whether the Ute Tribe claims the land or not, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 1997 ruling did say that land belonged to the tribe, whether they like it or not now.
Justices said they lacked the jurisdiction to determine if the Uintah Tribe was a legitimate tribe under the law and expressed concern that the would not be able to address certain areas of the case because of that.
Humiston said wether the Uintah band is a federally-recognized tribe does not affect his client's claim that he had a right to hunt without a state license.A ruling is expected in the coming months.