United States v. Oregon is a continuing federal court proceeding first brought in 1968 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. The NOAA Fisheries West Coast region website has 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 (District of 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.
Salmon and steelhead fisheries in the Columbia River have been managed ever since, subject to the continuing jurisdiction of the federal court in United States v. Oregon. After a number of years in which the parties asked the court to closely supervise annual fishing seasons, in the 1980s the parties and the court agreed to the first of a series of Columbia River Fish Management Plans to provide a multi-year framework for fisheries management. The 2018-2027 United States v. Oregon Management Agreement is the most recent fisheries management plan approved by the parties and the court. 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.
Upon the approval of the 2018-2027 management plan, U.S. District Judge Michael Mossman (the most recent of a series of federal judges assigned to U.S. v. Oregon) in 2018 “administratively closed” the U.S. v. Oregon case. But he did so while also noting that the court was retaining continuing jurisdiction and that an active case can be reopened by motion in the event a dispute arises in the implementation of the management agreement that requires judicial resolution.
The parties to the U.S. v. Oregon litigation and harvest management agreement include the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho; the United States, represented by NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, 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.