Mille Lacs walleye lawsuit against DNR heads to appeals court

Mille Lacs Lake
A lawsuit against the Minnesota DNR alleges that it has mismanaged Mille Lacs Lake.
Conrad Wilson / MPR News 2013

Disgruntled resort owners and citizens' groups will argue before a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Thursday 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.

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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.

Terry McQuoid
Terry McQuoid owns McQuoids Inn near Isle on Mille Lacs Lake.
Conrad Wilson / MPR News file

"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.

Measuring walleye
Rick Bruesewitz measures a walleye as part of the Department of Natural Resources population study on Mille Lacs on Wednesday, May 8, 2013 near Garrison, Minn.
Conrad Wilson / MPR News 2013

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.

Background: Understanding the issues at play

A smallmouth bass struggles boatside
A smallmouth bass struggles boatside on Mille Lacs Lake after being caught while walleye fishing Saturday, May 10, 2014.
Dave Orrick / AP

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.