ST. PAUL — The shortage of walleye on Mille Lacs Lake has created a political firestorm, spilling over into the Minnesota Legislature after the Department of Natural Resources announced a catch and release only season this year.
As news of the DNR’s summer regulations spread, Sen. Dave Brown, R-Becker, echoed public mistrust of the agency following the early shutdown of the season last August. He also said he’d introduce a bill to override the DNR’s regulations.
Brown made good on his promise three days later, introducing a bill March 24 that would set the limit on Mille Lacs at two fish and allow live bait to be used. The overall size limit is unspecified in Brown’s bill, although it does stipulate if the fish is 17 to 29 inches in length, or over 28 inches in length, only one such fish can be kept.
The same day Brown introduced his legislation, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton responded via a written statement to criticism of the DNR’s decision.
“I understand that the upcoming fishing season will be extremely difficult and painful for Lake Mille Lacs resort operators, fishing guides, and everyone else, who depend upon the lake’s walleye fishing, as well as for its thousands of anglers,” Dayton said. “Understandably, no one likes the very tight restrictions the DNR has imposed on walleye fishing there. The experts in DNR and on the Mille Lacs Advisory Committee can disagree about whether those restrictions are necessary and proper. However, no one should doubt that they were made with the shared goal of permanently restoring the number of walleyes, which have made Lake Mille Lacs world-famous.”
Dayton also responded to Brown’s assertion the DNR is trying to destroy the Mille Lacs economy.
“To disagree is one thing,” he said. “To say that the DNR wants to destroy the Mille Lacs economy is so ignorant and untrue that it does not deserve a response.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Brown took a conciliatory tone, saying he “misspoke.”
“The DNR isn’t trying to damage the economy,” he said. “But, the results of their decisions are damaging the economy.”
Dayton’s office has been “very supportive” of trying to find a solution to the Mille Lacs issue, Brown said. Dayton proposed a special session last summer to pass a financial aid package for the region, but legislators shot the special session idea down.
Brown’s bill to force a walleye harvest, which had no co-sponsors as of Tuesday, would not be getting a committee hearing, Brown said. With a hearing deadline coming Friday, the bill is effectively dead in the water.
However, Brown said the regulation override bill helped bring the DNR to the negotiating table. As a result, Brown, said, he was able to add–with DNR support–an amendment to the Senate’s fish and game bill that would require the DNR to conduct a report on hooking mortality, and reexamine its data collection.
Under the radar?
Besides the Legislature itself, the bitter conflict over game fish has also encapsulated two other government-organized panels.
The newer body is the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, a citizen input group formed by the DNR to help improve its lines of communication with the Mille Lacs public. It had its first meeting in October. However, it has no direct control over the DNR harvest rules–it can only provide information and advice from the perspective of people the rules might affect, such as anglers, resort owners and local officials.
The 1837 Ceded Territory Fisheries Committee, or simply the “Technical Committee” has much more direct say over what regulations exist on Mille Lacs Lake from season to season. It owes its existence to a 1990s federal court case affirming tribal rights to fish and hunt off-reservation in lands the Ojibwe ceded to the U.S. government in the 1800s. Experts from the DNR and the tribes compare data and together negotiate an allowable harvest level of walleye. The meetings are held privately, but Minnesota legislators are allowed to attend.
Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, has criticized the transparency of the two groups.
Erickson introduced several bills related to the walleye issue. One bill says the DNR “must negotiate with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and all other Ojibwe bands included in ceded territory of the 1837 treaty to stop the use of gill nets on Lake Mille Lacs during the walleye spawn for three years.”
Erickson said Monday if her bill does not make it into the House’s game and fish bill, she will offer it directly on the House floor.
“We have to have this debate,” Erickson said. “We have to find out to what extent the DNR stands up for the fact that the people of Minnesota own this lake. We own these bodies of water.”
Another Erickson bill says the five-year management plan harvest developed by the DNR and the Mille Lacs Band “must be approved by the Legislature before the plan may be implemented.”
A third specifically classifies meetings of the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory committee and the Technical Committee as public under the state’s open meeting law — so that average citizens can attend — and requires the DNR to record both groups’ meetings.
“Those meetings should be available for the public,” she said. “That’s the way we operate in our great state, and our republic. It just disappoints me again that we can’t seem to reach a point where the DNR helps (the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commision) for example … understand the importance of openness in our kind of government. It’s essential.”
The DNR approached the bands about possibly having Advisory Committee members present at an October 2015 technical committee meeting, but the bands denied their request.
The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has also taken steps of its own to address the walleye shortage. Band DNR Commissioner Susan Klapel said they remained committed to not allowing its members to gill net on the lake. A “limited” number of walleyes would be taken by spearing, however.
“The Mille Lacs Band remains committed to the long-term health of the Lake,” she said in a written statement. “Last summer, after consulting with tribal elders, Chief Executive (Melanie) Benjamin announced that the Mille Lacs Band would not be netting for walleye in 2016. The band has not wavered from that commitment.”