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Mille Lacs walleye decline may spell trouble for DNR, too

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Measuring walleye
Aitkin-area fisheries supervisor Rick Bruesewitz measures a walleye as part of the Department of Natural Resources population study on Mille Lacs, May 8, 2013, near Garrison, Minn.
Conrad Wilson | MPR News 2013

While controversy swirls around the walleye in Lake Mille Lacs, some Republicans are focusing on a different kettle of fish: namely, the Department of Natural Resources.

Republican legislators say any special session to help businesses around Lake Mille Lacs needs to include changes to the DNR. They blame the DNR, in part, for what they say is mismanagement of the lake's walleye population.

"I think the DNR does need to be included in special session discussion, and specifically how they've managed the population of walleye in the lake and whether there's some things that need to be done differently," said Kurt Daudt, the Republican speaker of the House.

Daudt said a working group looking to help the resort owners on Lake Mille Lacs would hold its first meeting Tuesday. He said the group will look at short-term options to help businesses on the lake, but he also wants long-term options.

And he wants to look at the DNR.

The criticism of the DNR comes as the department takes the unprecedented step of ending the walleye fishing season early on the lake because the annual limit has been reached. Resort owners, anglers and others have criticized the decision. Many say they think the DNR's analysis is wrong.

Karen McQuoid, owner of Mac's Twin Bay Resort in Isle, Minn., will serve on the working group. She said last week that she lacks confidence in the DNR's science.

"We're raising the concerns because we don't think it's being managed properly," she said. "We don't think they're making appropriate estimates of the numbers of fish on the lake, and that is causing economic disaster in our area."

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he's willing to call a special session to help resort owners like McQuoid. He's suggested zero-interest loans for resort owners and increased marketing of the bass, northern pike and muskie fishing on Mille Lacs.

But Republican Sen. Carrie Ruud of Breezy Point said she wants a broader discussion that focuses on the DNR. She wants greater oversight of Native American fishing practices and stronger action taken to limit invasive species and predatory birds.

"You have to address the netting; you have to address the zebra mussels," she said. "You have to address the cormorants. You have to address the management practices that have gone on at that lake. Unless you address the problems, just throwing cash at it doesn't really get us anywhere."

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe said last week it will suspend its netting in 2016.

And Dayton has acknowledged the criticism of the DNR, suggesting the department needs a lesson in customer service.

He also suggested making changes to personnel overseeing fishing on Lake Mille Lacs. But the governor expressed full confidence in DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.

Landwehr, who will serve on the working group, said he's willing to listen to lawmakers' concerns about his agency. But he said the DNR is basing its decision on sound science. Many of the problems on the lake lack simple solutions, he said.

"A lake is not like a video game where you can just turn a button here and the volume goes up or you can turn a button there and the color changes," he said. "A lake is much more dynamic. And while accountability is a great thing, and I believe in it, it's not as easy as managing something like making my car run. It is much more complex."

Landwehr said anglers have to acknowledge that Lake Mille Lacs is changing. And the changes include a much clearer lake, more predator fish and a decline in male walleyes.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said those criticizing the DNR need to look in the mirror. He said many have been reluctant to accept the DNR's past attempts to protect the walleye population.

"The public has been real slow at coming along to support the changes, like the closing of night fishing and the reduced limits," Bakk said. "There's been a lot of pushback that the DNR has gotten from the public. There's some blame to go around with the public, too, being unwilling to accept the fact that the fishery is not stable right now."

Landwehr said he hopes that the walleye population in the lake can be restored. In the meantime, the governor said he's heading to Mille Lacs on Saturday to showcase the other fishing options the lake has to offer. 

MPR News' Dan Kraker contributed to this report.