With walleye in decline, DNR becomes prey

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

As officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources try to rebuild the walleye population of Mille Lacs and other lakes, they may find it even more difficult to rebuild public trust.

"It seems like wherever you go, the DNR is getting bashed over something or other," said former DNR employee Dick Sternberg. "It's really a no-win job."

The agency's mission is to work with the public to conserve and manage the state's resources, but that can lead to conflicts over fishing and hunting limits, invasive species prevention and the use of trails and parks.

Sternberg said the DNR is in a tough position because the dynamics of lakes, forests and prairies can change over time. In many cases, those changes aren't easily explained.

"You have issues that really can't be solved easily, like people would like to have them," he said. "They are more complex, and people don't understand those complexities."

Sternberg has long criticized the DNR's approach to managing walleye in Lake Mille Lacs. And he is by no means the only one.

Driving around Lake Mille Lacs, it's hard to miss the frustration with the DNR. At some resorts you can buy T-shirts that feature a middle finger sticking up at the DNR. The shirts were made when the agency limited this year's walleye catch on Mille Lacs to one fish — and then ended the lake's walleye season altogether.

A lone boat sat in view near Garrison.
A lone boat sat in view on Lake Mille Lacs near Garrison in August.
Tom Scheck | MPR News

"There's not a lot of trust up here with the DNR at this point," said Steve Johnson, owner of Johnson's Portside, a bait shop and convenience store in Isle, Minn.

Johnson is active in his community — serving on the Mille Lacs Tourism Board, the county planning commission, the township board and the Mille Lacs fisheries input group — so he has a good sense of where the public stands on the DNR.

"Out of all of the years that I have ever been here," he said, "this is the worst year as far as the polarization goes."

Johnson offered a long list of grievances against the DNR. He disagrees with the department's assessment of the walleye population in the lake. He said the DNR doesn't listen to those who regularly fish the lake. He said he believes the agency is focused more on politics than on science.

But the biggest beef Johnson and others have with the DNR is the way it manages the walleye harvest on the lake with Native American Tribes.

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an 1837 treaty guarantees the tribes the right to fish Mille Lacs using spears and nets. Those practices, primarily gill netting during the spring mating season, have become the chief concern of resort owners. They say the DNR is not being honest about the impact of tribal fishing on the walleye population.

"It's the only subject that they'll give a definitive answer to," Johnson said. "The answer is 'No, springtime gill netting in the spawning grounds does not affect the population of the lake.'"

Johnson acknowledged the DNR lacks proof that gill netting has caused the walleye's disappearance, but he and others think the department should continue to study the possibility.

Tom Landwehr
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr speaks to the media about the status of Lake Mille Lacs walleye fishing in St. Paul in early August.
Rachel Woolf | Star Tribune via AP

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr insists the department has studied the reasons behind the decline in the walleye population, and there is no simple answer.

"I don't think people understand that we can't just turn knobs on the front of the lake, like you would on a DVD to adjust the volume or whatever," he said. "We have very limited ability to influence the lake, and I think people don't appreciate that that's the case. I think people believe that we have a greater level of management authority than we do."

DNR scientists say climate change, invasive species, cormorants and cleaner water in the lake could all be factors in the walleye drop-off. That allows everyone to second-guess the agency's science, its decision to close the walleye season on Mille Lacs and the process used to determine the fish population.

Linda Eno, who owns Twin Pines Resort in Garrison, Minn., is one of the most vocal critics of the DNR. She's dismayed that the DNR negotiates the annual fish harvest with the tribes in private.

Linda Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort
Linda Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort in Garrison, said her business has dropped 80 percent since the DNR ended the walleye season early on Lake Mille Lacs.
Tom Scheck | MPR News

"You ask why I don't trust the DNR," she said. "Well, they go into a closed meeting and negotiate my livelihood and the state of Minnesota's resources away, to put it simply."

Eno and others say they understand that treaty rights allow the tribes to net, but they're frustrated that it's done during spawning season. They want the DNR to invoke a clause in the treaty with the tribes that allows the DNR to stop gill netting during mating season for the sake of conservation. But DNR Commissioner Landwehr said the agency can't do that without science to back up the claim.

"It's an easy thing for people to point out because at some level they don't like it," he said. "But at the end of the day, the data doesn't support that it's a problem."

Gill netting is a hot-button issue around the lake for everyone worried about the walleye population. And the DNR is getting the brunt of the flak.

DNR records show that fisheries biologist Don Pereira was worried enough about one email regarding gill netting that he asked in July whether he should forward threatening messages to police in "case someone goes off."

DNR officials hope their outreach plans for the lake will stem some of the anger and restore public trust.

Landwehr said the agency plans to build a fisheries facility on the lake and send more staff to the area. He also said the department is planning a pilot program to stock the lake and hopes to appoint an advisory committee of community members. Landwehr also said he hopes to open up the technical meetings with the tribes to increase transparency.

But a few of those suggestions are raising concerns from the Native American tribes.

"The rush to satisfy things from a political perspective should not short-circuit the type of biological and scientific analysis that needs to be done," said Jim Zorn, executive administrator for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. He said any plans to stock the lake or open up the technical committee meetings need to be negotiated with the tribes.

Zorn also took issue with allegations that gill netting is damaging the fish harvest. People upset about the situation on Mille Lacs "should be looking for solutions instead of blaming the tribes or the DNR," he said.

"You get a lot of dog-kicking," he said. "You look for the easiest target to start kicking, just because you don't like reality and you want to wish it away. The fact is that we can't wish away the tribe's treaty rights. We can't wish away the factors that are contributing to the walleye decline, and all we can do is figure out a way to work together to solve them."

But that is no easy task. Resort owners are anxious about whether the DNR will forbid ice fishing on Mille Lacs this winter. A ban could put them out of business, they say. And some, including Linda Eno from Twin Pines Resort, are reluctant to embrace the DNR's outreach.

"We don't need more DNR folks," she said. "We don't need a DNR building on this lake. Twenty miles away in Aitkin is plenty close."

Commissioner Landwehr said the DNR won't release its plans for the ice-fishing season on Mille Lacs until later this fall.

Editor's note: This report was updated at 10:30 a.m. Thursday to clarify that Dick Sternberg has been a longtime critic of the DNR's management of Lake Mille Lacs.

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