“Gov. Dayton, Stop Lake Mille Lacs Politics.” That’s the message an angry armada of protesters put on signs and gave voice to when they encircled a gubernatorial fishing boat recently on the sprawling, mid-Minnesota lake.
A reality check is in order for protesters, who are upset about walleye fishing restrictions and their impact on tourism. Instead of taking politics out of walleye management, protesters’ remedies would actually inject more politics into it. Specifically, some of the flotilla’s organizers, who also happen to be resort owners, want to downplay the state Department of Natural Resources’ data-gathering in setting walleye limits and rely more on local residents’ observations about walleye health and numbers.
This would undermine a science-driven process in favor of economic interests — a recipe for more politics, not less. Much of the information gathered would be from those with a short-term financial stake in taking more walleye out of the lake. In addition, anecdotal observations about a strong walleye season don’t necessarily equate to a healthy population, especially when prey fish numbers are low as they currently are and hungry walleye are easy to catch.
The protest, which happened last weekend, was regrettable but probably inevitable. The lake’s startling walleye decline and several years of tightened walleye limits, with a three-week walleye ban now in place, has pressured resort owners’ bottom lines. Adding to tensions: lamentable ongoing anger about a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision that led to the state comanaging the big lake with the eight Midwestern bands of Ojibwe Indians.
The high-court decision recognized the bands’ fishing rights resulting from a 19th-century treaty with the U.S. government. Seventy percent of the walleye harvest is still designated for nontribal anglers. But some residents unfairly blame Indians for the declining walleye population even though the bands report taking much less than their annual spearing and netting quota for nearly two decades. Some also believe the bands want to reduce the overall walleye harvest to drive out resorts — a conclusion at odds with the local tribal casino’s dependence on local attractions to draw tourists.
Managing any wildlife resource is complex. The DNR has made good-faith efforts to gather public input as difficult decisions are made. A Michigan State University fisheries professor contacted by an editorial writer also said the agency’s science methodology is “well-founded.” Nevertheless, public trust in the DNR’s prescriptions remains shaky. The low Mille Lacs walleye population also remains a cause for concern.
Bringing in more fisheries experts to review the DNR’s management, as the agency plans to do, is helpful, but likely won’t close the trust gap. It’s time for a second opinion, one that utilizes Minnesota’s highly respected Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA). Headed by the venerable Jim Nobles, the OLA has long provided trusted, clear-eyed evaluations of thorny issues.
There’s a precedent for Nobles’ office to get involved in a wildlife-management issue — a 2016 report evaluated state deer population management, another complex emotional matter. An independent review of the DNR’s research, methodology and decisionmaking transparency would reassure that the agency is using up-to-date science to restore walleye numbers. Nobles’ staff also would provide an important service by breaking down the issues into a readable public report.
It only makes sense to call on one valuable state resource — the OLA — to ensure the vitality of another state resource — Mille Lacs walleye. Lawmakers should work with Gov. Mark Dayton to launch this review without delay. In the meantime, protesters need to tone down the rhetoric. Rude words hurled by some at the governor and his guests tarnished the area’s family-friendly reputation.