DNR sued over management of Lake Mille Lacs walleye fishery
ST. PAUL -- Two weeks ahead of the Minnesota fishing opener, a group of anglers and current and former resort owners filed suit Thursday to overturn an extended night-fishing ban on Lake Mille Lacs recently enacted by the state Department of Natural Resources.
More broadly, they say the DNR has ruined the renowned walleye fishery on Mille Lacs and that the agency needs to start weighing the interests of nontribal anglers as much as it does American Indian tribes.
"It's a legal violation not to treat their heritage and our heritage equally," said attorney Erick Kaardal, who is representing five petitioners in a suit filed with the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The DNR "shouldn't be pushed to violate our fishing heritage by the tribe. There has to be a balance."
Members of Chippewa bands whose descendants signed on to an 1837 treaty retain court-upheld rights to fish Mille Lacs outside the jurisdiction of the state of Minnesota. The most controversial of their practices is to net walleye in the spring, as the fish are spawning, which some point to as a key cause of the walleye population decline in Mille Lacs.
Kaardal argues that a constitutional amendment passed by Minnesota voters in 1998 to preserve hunting and fishing as a "valued part of our heritage" to be managed for the public good should have as strong a claim on the DNR as the Indian rights.
And a crucial part of that heritage is retaining Mille Lacs as a walleye fishery, he said.
"This lawsuit does not threaten the tribal settlement," Kaardal said. "But just because the tribe has a share of the lake walleye harvest doesn't mean that the lake can be managed by the DNR so there's zero walleyes."
A spokesman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which helps tribes administer off-reservation treaty rights, said Thursday the group hadn't reviewed the lawsuit and had no comment.
The walleye count is down significantly in Mille Lacs. The safe harvest level is the lowest since 1997.
DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen said Thursday that the agency was still reviewing the lawsuit and couldn't comment, but he said the DNR shares residents' concerns about the declining fish population.
He said the reduction is centered on midsize walleye, up to about 15 inches or so. It is not caused by tribal netting, he said, nor is it the result of bigger walleye eating smaller ones.
The DNR believes intense fishing of midsize walleye in previous years and predation by northern pike and bass are responsible for the drop, Niskanen said. It increased the harvest limits for pike and bass and instituted the extended night-fishing ban to address the problem, he said.
Typically, there is a night-fishing ban for a few weeks after the opening weekend. This year, the ban lasts from May 12, the Monday after the opener, until Dec. 1.
The agency also has invited a panel of fisheries scientists to review its data and give its opinion about the population decline, Niskanen said.
He said the DNR is committed to restoring walleye in Mille Lacs.
"This is not some intentional effort to change this lake. We are responding with these extraordinary efforts to recover the walleye population."
Bill Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort on Mille Lacs and a party to the suit, said he was shocked when the DNR announced the longer night-fishing ban.
"I had customers booked for 8 to midnight," he said. Many customers drive up from the Twin Cities and would find it hard to make an earlier launch, Eno said.
Also, the rule says no boat on the water past 10 p.m. can have any fishing equipment on it, which is going to affect things like people cruising out in their boats to take in Fourth of July fireworks, he said.
"Now people are going to have to go and they're going to have to strip all the fishing equipment out of their boat. That's going to affect how you move around on the lake," Eno said.
The suit asks the court to order the DNR to respond within 15 days.
If the suit is successful, the night-fishing rules would go back to how they've been, Kaardal said, and the court would order the DNR to draft findings of fact that take into account hunting and fishing heritage before enacting any further rules.
He said he thinks the case could have implications for other states that have similar hunting and fishing preservation amendments.
"The DNR has paid no heed to the constitutional requirement," Kaardal said.
"We want Mille Lacs to become the lake that it once was," said Doug Meyenburg, chair of Proper Economic Resource Management, another party to the suit. "I think that that heritage of fishing, teaching somebody to fish the lake and then actually catching a fish, needs to be preserved for all people of the state of Minnesota."