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Biden Isn’t Living Up To His Pledge to Respect Tribal Sovereignty

The administration has ignored Indigenous leaders’ demands for consultation on federal wolf protections.

Last month, when President Biden met with tribal leaders at the Tribal Nations Summit, he spoke of his commitment to Indigenous rights and tribal sovereignty. The first line of the Summit Progress Report reads: "President Biden's relationship with Native Americans is built on respect for tribal sovereignty and self-governance, honoring federal trust and treaty responsibilities, and conducting regular, meaningful and robust consultation with tribal nations.” In practice, however, the Biden administration thus far has failed to uphold this commitment. For instance, despite a very loud outcry from Indian Country, the administration ignored Indigenous leaders’ demands to be meaningfully consulted on federal wolf protections. 

One of the key concerns of Indian Country has always been meaningful consultation between the federal government and sovereign Indian nations. Because our cultures and ways of life are tied to the land we now share, tribal nations must be included in any decision-making process that impacts our collective environment. President Biden acknowledged this responsibility in his January 26th “Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation to Nation Relationships,” which mandated that federal agencies engage in tribal consultation, signalling to Indiginous leaders that the federal government would respect our nations’ sovereignty. 

On November 15, the administration further articulated its commitment to tribal consultation in a joint order signed by the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture departments. This order recognizes the federal government’s responsibility to properly manage federal public lands in a manner that “protects tribal interests” and furthers the “nation-to-nation relationship with tribes” and states that “tribal consultation and collaboration must be implemented as components of, or in addition to, federal land management priorities and direction for recreation, range, timber, energy production, and other uses, and conservation of wilderness, refuges, watersheds, wildlife habitat, and other values.” 

But despite these performative gestures, President Biden has not engaged in meaningful consultation on wolf management. His administration has disregarded the demands of tribal nations that he authorize an emergency wolf relisting and engage in meaningful consultation on the subject. 

For context, in October 2020, the Trump administration removed wolves from the protections of the Endangered Species List without consulting the sovereign tribal nations impacted by the decision. This was an affront to the principles of consultation, and has jeopardized a species considered sacred in countless Indigenous cultures. Without federal protections, wolves have become the target of extreme hunts that threaten to drive the species to extinction. In Idaho, the state hunting laws allow 90% of wolves to be slaughtered. In Montana, it’s 85%. 

Because these hunts are occurring without meaningful tribal input, and threaten a creature that is integral to the fabric of our traditions, tribes have demanded that the administration halt these hunts immediately. In September, a group representing 200 tribes penned a letter calling on the administration to authorize an emergency wolf relisting. As the letter states, “to avoid rendering President Biden’s commitment and promise to Indian Country meaningless, and to put a hold on the continued slaughter of the gray wolf, we demand that you immediately grant the emergency relisting petition to give the federal government the chance to follow precedent and engage in consultation with tribes.” The All Pueblo Council of Governors echoed this sentiment in a letter to Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, demanding that she authorize an emergency relisting. 

But Biden has failed to properly acknowledge and respect these requests. Rather than granting a temporary emergency wolf relisting, the administration is allowing hunts to continue unchecked as it conducts a year-long status review. This 12-month process to reconsider restoring federal wolf protections enables wolf hunts to continue across the country without the consent of tribal nations, in violation of treaty rights, and thus silences our voices and ignores our input as hunters decimate the species. How many wolves will be murdered before tribal consultation occurs? If the administration is committed to the principles of tribal sovereignty, it will pause the wolf hunts until consultation occurs. 

I am hopeful that administration officials will recognize this obvious disconnect in the messages they are sending Indian Country regarding respect and recognition of tribal rights and interests. While pledges and statements about the importance of sovereignty are promising, the president must follow through on his commitment to consultation on every issue Indian Country finds important, not just a few.  

Tribal communities have lived alongside the Gray Wolf for thousands of years, and there is much Indian Country can add to the topic of wildlife population management practices. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that his words are good, he must grant the request for tribal consultation on the wolf matter and protect the species during this necessary process through an emergency wolf relisting. 

Kevin Allis is a tribal member of the Forest County Potawatomi Community, president of the government relations firm Thunderbird Strategic LLC, and former chief executive officer of the National Congress of American Indians.