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Meet the tribal liaison behind modernizing an outdated Arizona Game and Fish cooperative agreement

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Jon Cooley kept in touch with his tribal upbringing. His father was an enrolled member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and lived on the Fort Apache Reservation in eastern Arizona. "I grew up on the rez, so I’m a rez-boy," he admitted. 

Cooley served a seven-year stint as director for the tribe’s Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation division. Later, in 2004, he joined the Arizona Game and Fish Department. His unique connection to Indigenous conservation and wildlife efforts made him an ideal candidate to become the agency’s tribal liaison. And recently, Cooley updated a tribal cooperative agreement that hadn’t been revised since 1991.

"I think what really triggered my involvement on this policy was GOTR, the Governor’s Office on Tribal Relations, under the former administration," said Cooley, "but definitely has continued through the current administration."

Working with tribes to modernize this outdated agreement was long overdue and even years in the making, according to Cooley. Although his amendments effectively changed nothing, Cooley shared: "It's important for those who pay attention." 

His first proposal starts with rewriting its title, shifting the department’s framing from reservations to governments. 

"The old policy says something about law enforcement training on Indian reservations. The new policy puts it in the context of coordinating with tribal governments," Cooley explained. "Indian reservations are land masses. Tribal governments are sovereign authorities. That’s an important distinction, and we made a point to highlight that in the revision."

Click and drag the bar in the document to see the policy updates.

Originally, the scope of his agency’s agreement centered solely around law enforcement. Now, the revised language broadens that relationship to mention hunter education and outreach as well as wildlife and cultural resources management.

"Wildlife doesn’t understand boundaries. You know, they go and migrate where they please," said Darren Talayumptewa, program manager for the Wildlife and Ecosystems Management Program at the Hopi's Department of Natural Resources. He added that shared interests may emerge between the state and tribes, warranting the need for such agreements. "And depending on a species, that may benefit both the state, tribe, and maybe even the feds at times."

The golden eagle, in particular. The Hopi Tribe has historically secured federal permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to capture and sacrifice nestling golden eaglets, part of their rituals and religious observances. Many of these aerial predators call the canyons within Coconino County home, which is where a portion of the Hopi’s 1.5 million acres of reservation lands are located.

Talayumptewa, a Southwest regional director for the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, expressed collaboration between state and tribal authorities is paramount for preserving that population. "It’s a cultural species that we really look at, and that’s something we share with Arizona Game and Fish," he elaborated. 

Being invited to offer comments and feedback on this policy was welcomed, and a refreshingly simple process. He believed: "It wasn’t that much of a huge task, but you know, it was good enough to where it worked for all of the tribes." And Cooley agreed.

Jon Cooley speaks on wildlife, natural resources and self-governance in 2002. Indigenous Governance Database/ University of Arizona’s Native Nations Institute.

"With that feedback, I then took steps internally to move it down our process before it goes to the commission for review," according to Cooley. His proposal was unanimously approved in August.

"I want to thank you for doing this," said Arizona Game and Fish Commissioner Clay Hernandez. "I recognize the amount of time our Game and Fish Department works closely with the various tribes and how committed those departments are to the same goals that we have. And I believe that this agreement here continues to foster that, and we’re very appreciative of the work that they do with us, and the work that we get to do with them." 

Robert Miller, an Eastern Shawnee law professor who teaches in the Indian Legal Program at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, explains why agreements like this one arise in Arizona.

"Twenty-seven percent of the state of Arizona is Indian Country," said Miller. "This state has gotten used to there being so much Indian Country, and that they have to cooperate, and that it’s both good policy to do so."

Incremental changes, even as perceivably small as a couple of language revisions, add up over time. And Talayumptewa, who began his conservation career as a wildlife technician, has noticed that dialogues are improving — not only for Hopi and other Indigenous peoples, but all Arizonans.

"You know, I have to say that the state has made huge progress in fostering those relationships with the tribes," said Talayumptewa. "Twenty — 30 years ago, it wasn’t like this with the state, but they’ve come a long way in working together to make it better for all."

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.