|Written by John Enger, Minnesota Public Radio News,
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Disgruntled resort owners and
citizens' groups argued before a three-judge panel of the Minnesota
Court of Appeals on Nov. 20 that the state Department of Natural
Resources has mismanaged Mille Lacs Lake.
In April, resort owner Bill Eno,
several other local residents and the non-profit advocacy groups
Proper Economic Resource Management and Save Mille Lacs Sport Fishing
filed suit against the DNR.
Citing a 1998 state constitutional
amendment to preserve fishing heritage, they argued that department
did not consider it when formulating its latest walleye regulations,
which include an extended ban on night fishing.
"The DNR ... could not have
designed better plans to destroy the Mille Lacs Lake walleye fishing
heritage than the plans that the DNR implemented since 1998,"
attorney Erick Kaardal wrote in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks to force DNR lake
managers to rethink fishery management techniques and listen more
closely to local opinion. The three-judge panel is expected to rule
on the lawsuit within 90 days.
Eno, who has owned Twin Pines Resort
on the western shore of Mille Lacs for two decades, said he has
watched DNR regulations tighten, even as walleye numbers decrease. He
said the department has crippled the lake's walleye population, and
When the DNR announced regulations
temporarily banning night fishing early this spring, Eno had to call
dozens of regular customers to cancel their night reservations. The
rules hit his business hard, because he makes a lot of his money
running fishing launches from 8 p.m. to midnight.
The DNR later re-opened night fishing,
but for Eno, the ban was the last straw.
"Sometimes they change the
regulations two or three times in the same year." he said. "We
used to have customers from Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. We used to
have big groups. They quit coming because we don't know what they'll
be able to catch."
Mille Lacs supports a whole industry
of resorts and guide services. Eno is the only current resort owner
who is among the plaintiffs. They also include Fred Dally, former
owner of the Red Door Resort.
Only about half of Mille Lacs resort
owners blame the DNR for declining walleye numbers and slower
business, said Terry McQuoid, owner of McQuoid's Inn on the southeast
side of Mille Lacs. He is not among those who sued.
"I've been on the lake for 40
years," he said. "In that time we've had some bad years,
but it always gets better."
Even with the night fishing ban,
McQuoid said his resort made only slightly less money than usual.
Other resorts did a lot worse, but McQuoid said that's because of bad
"Twin Pines didn't do well this
year," he said, "but they're sort of bringing it on
themselves. When you complain that there's no walleye, it's going to
scare people off."
Minnesota's Preserve Hunting and
Fishing Heritage constitutional amendment notes that hunting and
fishing are big parts of Minnesota's heritage and should be managed
for public good. It is known as the right to hunt and fish amendment,
but can be interpreted in different ways.
The lawsuit argues DNR management did
not preserve the fishing heritage of Mille Lacs, a lake often called
the "Walleye Capital of the World." It asks that certain
DNR regulations be judged unconstitutional.
According to DNR communications
director Chris Niskanen, the agency was vested with the power to
manage fish and wildlife long before 1998. He said that power isn't
affected by the heritage amendment.
"The amendment did not change
long-standing laws vesting the agency with the authority and the
responsibility to regulate and manage game and fish for the public
good," Niskanen said.
Some of the factors the DNR takes into
consideration to manage walleye numbers in Mille Lacs are required by
treaty obligations. A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld hunting
and fishing rights from an 1837 treaty for an area of east central
Minnesota that includes Lake Milles Lacs.
In a statement, representatives of the
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said the tribe has worked with state
officials to manage the lake for the long term.
"The Mille Lacs Band Department
of Natural Resources and Environment collaborates with the Minnesota
DNR and other tribal governments to ensure that the lake remains an
asset for this generation and the next seven generations to come,"
tribal leaders said in the statement.
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Background: Understanding the
issues at play
The lawsuit over the DNR's management
of Mille Lacs Lake walleye involves several long-standing issues and
Mille Lacs Lake is jointly managed by
the DNR and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Each year, band members
are allowed by treaty rights to gill net 17,100 pounds of walleye.
Some resort owners say the lake is being managed for the benefit of
the tribe, rather than all the people who live and work on the lake.
The gill netting happens in the spring, while walleye are spawning
and at their most vulnerable. DNR officials say there is no proof the
gill netting has any effect on walleye reproduction rates.
Over the last decade, walleye numbers
have fallen at the same time northern pike and small mouth bass
became larger and more prevalent. Some contend this is because the
DNR is attempting to make Mille Lacs a multi-species lake. The DNR
contends that it manages Mille Lacs to promote walleye. Lake water
has become clearer in recent years, growing large weed beds which are
perfect for northern pike. This year, The DNR increased pike limits
to take pressure off the walleye population.
For years, slot limits have put a lot
of pressure on fish from 15 to 18 inches long, the walleye middle
class. Some resort owners and fishing guides said without those
medium-sized fish, the big fish are allowed to eat many of the little
fish, essentially eating the future of the species. DNR officials
don't defend the slot limits but say the agency needs the right to
make and change them based upon the best research and science they
have at the time.