ISLE, Minn. – The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the largest Indian tribe on Lake Mille Lacs, said Friday it will forgo its walleye harvest next year. Tourism-related businesses and avid anglers hope that will begin reversing a walleye population crisis that is cutting short this year’s fishing season and damaging tourism here.
Gov. Mark Dayton made the announcement at a town hall meeting called to discuss the waning walleye numbers and won a standing ovation from the crowd of several hundred.
In addition to being the bearer of good news from the Mille Lacs Band, Dayton said residents would see big changes in leadership of the local office of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, while reiterating his plan for short-term financial help and a special legislative session if need be. He said the state should consider stocking the lake to restore populations, like at Red Lake and Leech Lake.
“It’s clear we need a new team,” said Dayton of the local DNR. He said DNR officials were acting in good faith and believed their actions were protecting the lake ecosystem, but said his eyes were opened by the testimonials of locals who are embittered because they feel ignored.
Many area residents believe the DNR fishing rules are overly restrictive and too deferential to the eight Indian tribes that share fishing rights at the lake. DNR scientists say Indian netting is not the cause of the walleye population crisis, and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr says a good spawning year in 2013 could begin restoring the walleye census in the years ahead. Dayton pointed out that the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding tribal fishing rights from an 1837 treaty is the law of the land and can’t be easily revisited, as many in the crowd hoped.
Douglas Meyenburg, president of a nonprofit group called Proper Economic Resource Management, told the governor, “I don’t know if you recognize me. I’m the one who called for your resignation on WCCO,” to big laughs. “If you can help these good people out, I might rescind that statement,” he said, and the two shook hands.
Dayton replied in a self-deprecating tone, “There are a lot of people in Minnesota who share your view.”
After the town hall-style meeting, which lasted about an hour, Meyenburg, who lives in East Bethel but has fished the lake for more than 20 years, said he was encouraged that Dayton listened and said he was committed to restoring walleye counts and saving tourism.
“I see it as a step forward,” Meyenburg said.
Relief cannot come soon enough for local businesses. The walleye quota has dropped from 500,000 pounds in recent years to 40,000 pounds this year. A young man told Dayton that unlike many of his classmates, he returned to the area after school because he cherishes life on the lake, but he is unsure if he can preserve it for the next generation.
Late on Friday afternoon several House Republicans sent a letter to Landwehr asking that he consider keeping the lake open to walleye catch-and-release only, giving anglers some reason to come to Mille Lacs.
“We believe it is vital to the local economy to keep the fishery open to catch and release walleye fishing … and that this will result in the most positive economic results for the community.” The letter was signed by Rep. Tom Hackbarth, of Cedar, head of the Mining and Outdoor Recreation committee; Rep. Sondra Erickson, of Princeton, and Rep. Dale Lueck, of Aitken.
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin released a statement saying the band “remains deeply committed to safeguarding the long-term health of the Lake Mille Lacs and ensuring the region’s economy continues to grow and prosper, including businesses that rely on the lake.”
Benjamin released a letter she sent to band members in which she described meeting with Drum Keepers, including elders and young people, to talk about the health of the walleye. They discussed how in the time when all the animals could communicate, the walleye had agreed to sacrifice to help the humans live a good life if the humans would only take what they need and be respectful. And now, “Mille Lacs Band Members must sacrifice for the sake of the walleye, and give them time to recover,” the letter reads. With that, the band decided to suspend netting for one year.
A spokesman for Benjamin said she “will have a frank conversation with the [seven] other bands, and I assume there will be agreement” to join the one-year reprieve on netting.
Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042