Mille Lacs walleye lawsuit against DNR heads to appeals court

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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

his business.

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

marketing.

"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.

Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard on MPR’s statewide radio network or online at mprnews.org.

Background: Understanding the

issues at play

The lawsuit over the DNR’s management

of Mille Lacs Lake walleye involves several long-standing issues and

arguments.

Treaty Rights

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.

Species Priority

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.

Slot Limits

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.