Mille Lacs group urges DNR to challenge tribal netting

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 13, 2011 - 11:48 PM

Area business owners are ready to take the issue to court, but the DNR said a Supreme Court ruling will make any change difficult.

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The Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa's annual spring netting last year. Fishermen return to Liberty Beach public access in Isle, Minn.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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GARRISON, MINN. - Frustrated with the impacts of Chippewa netting on Lake Mille Lacs, a group of local business owners Monday urged the Department of Natural Resources to do something -- even go back to court -- to try to change the current situation.

"I think it's time we do something -- be aggressive," said Bill Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort near Garrison. "Let's go to court. This thing is wrong."

Eno is a member of the Mille Lacs Fishery Input Group, which regularly offers the DNR input on Mille Lacs fishing issues. About 15 members of the group passed a resolution urging the action during a sometimes heated meeting Monday night at a town hall near the 200-square-mile lake.

"Business as usual is unacceptable," the resolution states. It asks the DNR to "draw on Minnesota's legal and political resources" and use its authority as primary manager of the state's natural resources to "respond" to the gill-netting.

But DNR officials told the group their hands are tied by the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed fishing, hunting and gathering rights in east-central Minnesota for eight Chippewa bands.

"We have federal court orders and stipulations that we have to operate under," said Ed Boggess, DNR Fish and Wildlife Division director. "If we want to take something back to court, that's a possibility. But we'd better have a strong case to make."

The issues would have to be related to conservation, public safety or public health, he said.

Eno said the current walleye allocation system between the bands and non-band anglers -- and the band's netting of spawning walleyes each spring -- is unfair.

"Fairness isn't a conservation issue,'' Boggess said. And neither, apparently, is the band's method of harvesting walleyes, he said.

"We were told it doesn't matter how they take them,'' he said, as long as they stay within their harvest allocation. And Boggess said the court never ruled on whether the state has primary management authority for Mille Lacs. Nor did it decide how the walleye harvest should be divided between the bands and non-bands.

Some business owners expressed concern the bands eventually could take 50 percent of the total harvest. This year's "safe harvest'' was set at 540,000 pounds; the state got 74 percent and the bands 26 percent.

Monday's meeting was called because DNR fish surveys this fall showed the walleye population dipped to its second-lowest level since monitoring began in 1983. This despite excellent fishing this season. The decline was in smaller male walleyes -- those often kept by Chippewa netters and sport anglers. The drop could trigger more restrictive walleye-harvest regulations next year.

The DNR expects walleye fishing to be very good this winter, and if true, that often indicates good fishing during the open water season next year. But a high winter harvest could force the DNR to tighten regulations next season.

The DNR and advisory group will meet again in February, when the winter harvest survey results are in.

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