Written by Peter Pearsall/Photos by Leland Dick
In October 2022, members from the Burns Paiute Tribe participated in the first-ever ceremonial mule deer hunt at Malheur Refuge, in the Buena Vista area.
“We were allowed to hunt again on some of our homeland,” said Leland Dick, one of the Burns Paiute members that participated in the ceremonial hunt. “For me and my family, it’s enormously significant. We were talking to some of the elders in the Tribe, and they confirmed that this was the first time we have hunted those lands since it became a Refuge in 1908.”
Dick and his hunting partner hunted the Refuge during the first week of October 2022. “Some big guys got away. We used a bow and arrow and got one on the last day,” said Dick. “Gotta hunt ’em in early morning, otherwise they go out in the sage. [The Refuge] takes real good care of that country.”
Dick donated the deer meat to Tribal families. “It has taken quite a while to get to this point, and I’m glad we got here,” Dick said. “To the Tribal elders not here for this day, we feel blessed to maintain our traditions and provide meat for our families.”
To Dick, this hunt is part of the Tribe’s larger effort to regain some of their traditional hunting rights. Recently, the Tribe was granted access to hunt Harney County lands that were formerly part of the 1.8-million-acre “Malheur Reservation”, created for the Northern Paiute Tribes by Executive Order in 1872. When conflicts between Tribes and the U.S. government culminated in the Bannock War of 1878, residents of the Malheur Reservation were forcibly relocated more than 300 miles away, to the Yakama Indian Reservation in what was then southeastern Washington Territory. Emptied of its inhabitants, Malheur Reservation was “discontinued” through pressure from nearby settlers and turned over to the public domain in 1879. When members of the Northern Paiute eventually returned to their home in southeast Oregon, they found that the Reservation had been divvied up among settlers and was no longer accessible to them. Not long afterward, in 1908, much of these lands were incorporated into Malheur Refuge.
History of Refuge Deer Hunt
There has always been a mule deer hunt at Malheur Refuge, but it was restricted to the sagebrush uplands of the Boundary Unit, west of Highway 205.
During the Trump administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was directed to work with state wildlife agencies to either expand existing fishing and hunting opportunities on National Wildlife Refuges or create new ones. Working with state wildlife agencies, USFWS compiled “wish lists” from constituents detailing the types of fishing and hunting programs they’d like to expand or create at Refuges. In the process of evaluating existing hunting/fishing programs at Refuges and identifying potential new ones, USFWS also evaluated whether changes could be made to current Refuge hunting regulations to better align them with those of the states.
“We all share the responsibility of understanding rules and regulations when we hunt and fish on public lands,” said Jeff Mackay, Project Leader at Malheur Refuge. “But in some cases, Refuge regulations–such as the timing of a certain hunt season–didn’t match those of the state wildlife agency. Our intent is to reduce confusion among the public about when and where to hunt.”
Last year, after consulting with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and other partners, Malheur Refuge submitted its “wish list” of proposed changes to Refuge hunting and fishing opportunities to the USFWS Regional Office for approval. Among the proposed amendments: waterfowl and pheasant hunting seasons would change to match those of ODFW. (The reason they differed in the first place was to prevent disturbance to migrating sandhill cranes in the fall; cranes no longer flock to the Refuge during that time of year, so the regulation was outdated.) Another change was to open a limited mule deer hunt in the Refuge’s Buena Vista area. The Regional Office approved both changes.
The Buena Vista hunt is part of ODFW’s Steens Mountain Management Unit. In all, the Refuge can issue up to three Steens Mountain Unit deer hunt permits for Buena Vista, as well as one ceremonial deer hunt permit.
“It’s been an honor to work with ODFW and the Burns Paiute Tribe to open up a traditional hunting location at Malheur Refuge,” said Mackay. “Increasing recreational access to the Refuge for our Tribal partners is a win-win for everyone. The Tribe was pleased; there were no complaints from other Refuge user groups during the hunt. But this is a new season, and we will continue to monitor its effect in following years.”