U.S. v. Oregon

United States v. Oregon (302 F. Supp. 899) was the on-going Federal court proceeding first brought in 1968, and dismissed in 2018, to enforce the reserved fishing rights of the four Columbia River Indian tribes that signed treaties with the U.S. government in 1855 and historically fished in the Columbia River. These include the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. See the NOAA Fisheries West Coast region website for a complete explanation and links to related documents. Much of this entry is based on that explanation.

In his 1969 decision, U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Belloni (District of Oregon) ruled that the state of Oregon’s regulatory power over Indian fishing is limited because in the treaties the tribes reserved exclusive rights to fish in waters running through their reservations and at “all usual and accustomed places, in common with the citizens of the United States [or citizens of the territory].” (See: Sohappy v. Smith, 302 F. Supp. 899 (D. Oregon 1969)). The court further held that Oregon is limited in its power to regulate treaty Indian fisheries. Among other things, the court held that the states may only regulate 1) when reasonable and necessary for conservation; 2) provided: reasonable regulation of non-Indian activities is insufficient to meet the conservation purpose; 3) the regulations are the least restrictive possible; 4) the regulations do not discriminate against Indians; and 5) voluntary tribal measures are not adequate.

In 1974, Judge George Boldt considered identical treaty language in United States v. Washington. Judge Boldt held that the “in common with the citizens of the United States [or citizens of the territory]” language reserved 50 percent of all the harvestable fish destined for the tribes’ traditional fishing places. Later that same year, Judge Belloni reached the same holding, that the Columbia River treaty tribes were entitled to 50 percent of the harvestable runs destined to reach the tribes’ usual and accustomed fishing grounds and stations. See the Indian Fishing entry on this website for more information about the Boldt decision.

Fisheries in the Columbia River were subsequently managed subject to provisions of United States v. Oregon under the continuing jurisdiction of the federal court, jurisdiction that U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman ended on March 19, 2018 in favor of a management plan, the 2018-2027 United States v. Oregon Management Agreement, adopted by the parties and approved by the court. In a brief order dismissing the litigation, Judge Mosman wrote: “The Court terminates its continuing jurisdiction in this case. This matter is dismissed without prejudice to re-opening this matter in the event a dispute arises concerning the parties’ Management Agreement that requires judicial review.”

The 2018-2027 agreement is the latest fisheries management plan approved by the parties and the court. Until 1998, the Columbia River Fish Management Plan provided the framework for fisheries management in the Columbia River. After 1998 fisheries were managed through a series of short-term agreements among the parties. The duration of these agreements ranged from several months to ten years.

According to NOAA Fisheries, the 2018-2027 management agreement implements harvest policies that the parties have agreed should govern the amount of harvest in the river. The agreement also incorporates hatchery programs and associated production levels in the Columbia River Basin that support harvest and are also important to the conservation of salmon and steelhead populations above Bonneville Dam.

The parties to the U.S. v. Oregon litigation and harvest management include the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho; the United States, represented by NOAA Fisheries; the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.


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