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Published: Thursday, 4/3/2008

Tribe loses lawsuit for right to fish Lake Erie

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A federal court judge in Toledo has dismissed a lawsuit by the Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma that tried to claim unrestricted fishing rights in Lake Erie.

The tribe, which says it will appeal the ruling on its 2005 suit against Ohio Department of Natural Resources, was looking to begin fishing the lake for walleye and perch and to start hunting in Ohio.

U.S. District Court Judge Jack Zouhary sided with the state after examining a series of U.S.-Indian treaties from the early 1800s.

He also said that the Ottawa Tribe, which left northwest Ohio after the Treaty of 1831, waited too many decades to assert its claims.

Richard Rogavin, a Columbus attorney representing the tribe, said that it will appeal the decision to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mr. Rogavin took particular exception to the judge's interpretation of early treaties, which the tribe believes proves its right to fish and hunt in the area.

"There is plenty of doubtful language in these treaties," Mr. Rogavin said.

"We hope that the judges on the Court of Appeals will view these treaties more favorably for the Indians."

Attorneys for the state could not be reached for comment.

In his Monday decision, Judge Zouhary said that granting the tribe rights to fish on Ohio's inland lakes and rivers would "have a devastating effect on the lakes' ecosystems and artificial fish populations."

However, he said it remained unclear whether allowing the tribe to fish in Lake Erie would cause a negative impact on commercial and sport fishing.

The judge also ruled that the treaties' language was explicit and unambiguous in terminating the tribe's "privilege" to fish Lake Erie, and he disagreed with the tribe's arguments that financial, legal, and other factors prevented it from laying claim to fishing rights any earlier.

The Ottawa Tribe "was removed from Ohio in 1831 and made no attempts to enforce any treaty rights to hunt or fish in Ohio or Lake Erie until 2005, some [174] years later," the judge wrote.

In a separate yet related matter, Mr. Rogavin said the Ottawa Tribe believes it has a rightful claim to the 677-acre North Bass Island in Lake Erie, which also is known as the Isle of St. George.

Once the fishing rights lawsuit is resolved, "We'll go after the island," Mr. Rogavin said.

The tribe announced three years ago plans to eventually bring a fishing village, walleye hatchery, marinas, hotels, condominiums, and tax-free shops to the island.

The Ohio Attorney General's Office at the time dismissed the plans as a veiled ploy to bring casino gambling to the state.

The Ottawa Tribe has close to 2,000 members, 600 of whom live in Miami, Okla.

While the tribe does not have a reservation, it did recently open a convenience store and a small casino near Miami to generate revenue, Mr. Rogavin said. But its casino is one of many in Oklahoma.

"They are not a wealthy tribe," he said. "They have over 25 percent unemployment. They are poor."

Contact JC Reindl at: jreindl@theblade.com or 419-724-6065.



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