Mille Lacs advisory panel member resigns, calling group 'anti-treaty rights'

A key member of a group that advises state regulators on walleye fishing on Mille Lacs Lake has resigned, contending the committee has "devolved into an anti-science, anti-treaty rights forum subsidized by state resources."

Jamie Edwards, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's director of government affairs, made the claim in a letter to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr announcing his resignation from the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee.

Edwards was the only tribal representative on the 17-member panel. The DNR formed the group a year ago to help guide management decisions on the lake, after the state took the unprecedented step of closing the Mille Lacs walleye fishery early. The shutdown came after anglers exceeded the agreed upon quota for the non-tribal harvest.

The state was again forced to close the walleye season early this year, as state fisheries managers continue to grapple with a declining walleye population in one of the state's preeminent fishing destinations.

Edwards did not respond to interview requests. His letter further accused committee members of devoting "their meetings to discussing agenda items that dismiss scientific findings" and said they "do not respect the sovereign status of American Indian tribes."

"The hostility directed at Minnesota DNR staff is appalling," the letter continued, "with a nearly complete disregard for sound science."

DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira called Edwards' resignation disappointing, and that he hopes to replace him with another tribal representative.

But he said the committee is not "anti-science" or "anti-treaty rights." Pereira acknowledged some committee members are critical of the bands' use of nets to harvest walleye during the spawning season.

He said the DNR has consistently asserted tribal netting is not what has caused the drop in the lake's walleye population.

"They want us to look closely at that, to see if there's an issue, and we're very, very certain there's not, he said. "That's a tension point that still continues today."

Pereira also said the DNR assembled a committee that represents diverse interests, including resort owners, fishing guides, and public officials — although he acknowledged the six business owners are often the loudest voices.

"That's not too surprising," he said, since "they have a bigger stake in the game than some of the other representatives."

Committee member Steve Kulifaj, owner of the Red Door Resort in Aitkin, also said the committee is not anti-science. But he said resort owners and others have questioned the DNR's methods, because what they see on the lake every day often differs from what the agency reports.

"What we're doing is saying, here's what we're seeing, here's what you're stating from a biological standpoint, and it doesn't seem to add up," he said. "So how can we further test this. What else can be done. Can we put test nets in different areas? Can we do these different things."

Kulifaj also said Edwards did not attend several meetings, listened to others by telephone, and rarely participated, although a spokesman for the Mille Lacs Band said Edwards did participate in a vast majority of meetings.

Edwards is not the first committee member to resign over concerns about how science is viewed by the committee.

University of Minnesota fisheries biologist Paul Venturelli stepped down in May. He was the committee's sole academic representative.

In his resignation letter he wrote "the DNR is effective at communicating the science, but the majority of the committee is steadfast in the belief that the science is inherently flawed."

After eight months of trying to communicate research being done on the lake to the committee, Venturelli said he told the DNR to fill his position with someone trained in conflict resolution.

"I had one member tell me, 'thanks for sharing your opinion, but I prefer to listen to people whose hands smell like fish,'" he recounted. "The implication that person was trying to get across was that I'm in an ivory tower, crunching numbers, and it's really people who are on the water who know what's going on, on that lake."

Edwards' stepping down further diminishes the voice of those on the committee who are more open to evidence-based science, Venturelli added.

The next management decision the committee can weigh in on is coming up later this fall, when the DNR decides what kind of walleye harvest to allow — if any — during the upcoming ice fishing season.

"Those are the really valuable dialogues that we have" with the advisory committee, said the DNR's Don Pereira, "that really help the state biologists try to make the best decision moving forward."

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.