Dayton won’t take bait on reopening Mille Lacs

Updated: 5:15 p.m. | Posted: 11:09 a.m.

Gov. Mark Dayton Thursday criticized a legislative group that's been looking at ways to help businesses around Lake Mille Lacs that may suffer in the wake of the state's early closing of walleye season.

Dayton said the working group's last two meetings were not productive because they focused on the Department of Natural Resources' management of the lake. Some members also called for walleye fishing on Mille Lacs to be reopened.

Dayton said the group should be talking about financial aid for businesses affected by the DNR’s decision to close the lake to walleye fishing.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

“People up there, they don’t need more uncertainty, they need help. The challenge here is to rise to the situation and not devolve into political posturing and finger pointing,” Dayton said.

On Wednesday, members of the working group called on the DNR to reopen the lake to walleye fishing. DNR officials rebuffed the request, saying it would only create bigger problems for the walleye population.

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which represents 11 Ojibwe tribes and negotiates an annual harvest limit with the state, also opposes reopening the lake to walleye fishing this season.

Lawmakers from both parties and both chambers have repeatedly said that they would prefer not to meet in a special session to deal with the Mille Lacs issue.

Dayton wants a special session to help resort owners, bait shops and other businesses around the lake. He compared the situation to other natural and economic disasters that have prompted special legislative action and said the Legislature should take the same step for Mille Lacs.

“If legislators say it’s not a crisis and doesn’t meet the scope of urgency as avian influenza or floods or other natural disasters, they have the right to say so," Dayton said. "But then they should say so.”

Dayton wants the state to provide zero-interest loans, unemployment assistance and increased marketing of the lake to attract tourists.

But the governor's request is having little influence on lawmakers.

"To say the working group is not being helpful and the working group is not working towards a proper goal is insane," said Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, who co-chairs the walleye working group. Despite the DNR’s opposition, Hackbarth still wants the state to reopen walleye fishing on the lake. He said that’s the best way to help businesses around Mille Lacs.

Hackbarth said he’s not prepared to support a special session because the Dayton administration hasn’t provided enough specifics on how to help area businesses.

“The governor opened up this bag of worms, and it needs to be addressed," he said. "I agree with the governor wholeheartedly. I think it was a good thing to do. But let’s address it, if that’s what we’re going to do ... We can’t just throw a pile of money at an issue and not address the core problem.”

Dayton has said a special session is needed because the legislature would have to authorize the state to spend money to help resort owners and other businesses around Mille Lacs. Dayton has suggested zero interest loans, unemployment assistance, property tax relief and increased marketing of the lake.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr has also said his department is taking several steps that could help increase the walleye population over the long term.

He said the department is creating an action plan that would allow the DNR to stock the lake with walleye, which is currently not done. If the agency moves ahead, Landwehr said some initial actions could be taken this year to capture eggs that would be taken to a hatchery and stocking could begin in spring.

Dayton said he supports an "all-out stocking" program to help improve the walleye population in the massive lake.

The Associated Press contributed to the report.