Though most of the state’s snow is gone, Minnesotans can’t fully dismiss the horror of recent months until May 21, when the Legislature adjourns. Much will transpire between now and then, some of it helpful, perhaps.
Which brings us to muskies, a fish whose sharp incisors are causing much tooth-gnashing among some residents of Otter Tail County, home by one reckoning to more lakes than any county in Minnesota, or the U.S. — 1,048 in all. Fully 11 percent of the county’s 2,225 square miles is said to be covered with water.
The argument among some who live in the county is that for fun and food, muskies chomp not only sunnies, crappies and walleyes, reducing angling success, but threaten also profits of the region’s many tourist-oriented businesses.
This last correlation is theoretical, if not fantastical. No one has documented that angling for any fish in Otter Tail County has suffered by the presence of Esox masquinongy — lending credence to claims by muskie advocates that the intent here by locals is more akin to privatizing public waters for their own purposes than protecting the bottom lines of bait shops and resorts.
So riled up are some in the county that its board of commissioners last fall passed a resolution asking the Department of Natural Resources to stop muskie stocking thereabouts until further science can be developed to prove or disprove whether these fish are guilty as charged, or victims of a setup.
What’s more, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, has authored language that is part of an all-inclusive Senate bill that would prevent the DNR from stocking muskies in Otter Tail County for five years, while also requiring the convention of a local “stakeholder group” — including a member of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce — to study muskie science.
Multiple issues converge here, and how they play out in the next few weeks could have long-range repercussions for the state’s fish and wildlife management.
One is that while Ingebrigtsen can fairly be described as anti-muskie in this instance, the senator otherwise is held in high regard by sportsmen and women. A former member of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, Ingebrigtsen was known in that capacity, as he is in the Legislature, for his broad support of fish, game and wildlife, and their habitats.
In a Legislature increasingly made up of urbanites whose primary concerns are metro-centric, such advocacy can’t be taken for granted. Plus, Ingebrigtsen chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, meaning he sits at the nexus of all legislative outdoors matters. So, dismissing him as just another Capitol kook playing to his homies by bashing the DNR would be both incorrect and, for resource advocates, potentially self-defeating.
Consider also that no science exists to support the claim that muskies in any Otter Tail County Lake, or any Minnesota lake, are eating other fish out of house and home.
Walleyes are the state’s bread-and-butter tourist trap — everyone gets that, and everyone gets as well that those populations, along with those of other game fish, must be sustained. But multiple studies support the DNR’s position that muskies, at levels currently managed in Minnesota lakes, don’t reduce numbers of, or sizes of, walleyes, sunnies, bluegills, crappies or other fish.
Finally, when considered in the context of the natural-resource tribalism that increasingly is playing a role in management of state lands, waters and critters, the muskie slugfest and how it ends at the Capitol this month takes on added importance.
From farmland stream-buffering to deer-farm oversight and countywide bans against public-lands acquisitions, resource management that once was believed best administered according to statewide standards that benefit the wider public interest, now often are reduced to hullabaloos in which niche factions rattle the cage, and the tail wags the dog.
Lake associations provide an example. Whereas in years past — e.g., before invasive species threatened to undercut lakeshore values — home and cabin owners who lived on water could largely keep to themselves, now, often, they are bound by a common desire to retain the lake in the manner to which they have long been accustomed. On the plus side, this means beating back zebra mussels, Asian carp and other undesirables.
But when a similar zeal is shown to prohibit anglers who don’t live on the lake from chucking big baits in search of big fish under the guise of protecting walleyes and other, smaller fish, the effort becomes not only less altruistic but anti-Minnesotan, because the state’s waters are public by tradition — and law.
What’s for certain is that if the Legislature as expected delivers to Gov. Mark Dayton a supersized omnibus funding and policy bill that includes the anti-muskie provisions, it will be vetoed.
In that event, Ingebrigtsen said the other day, he will repackage his fish-stocking dictums more narrowly with resource policy changes and funding appropriations the DNR wants and needs, including efforts to curtail the spread of chronic wasting disease in deer, and get this revised package to the governor’s desk, attempting to force Dayton to enact the anti-muskie language neither he nor the DNR wants.
Only rarely are natural resources managed according to science alone, not just because science evolves, requiring different interpretations and applications, but because, ultimately, people and their politics are involved.
Sometimes, right wins out. Sometimes, might prevails. Often, it’s a combination.
Credit Ingebrigtsen with this: Regarding muskies, he’s representing his constituents, which he’s elected to do. But his attempt to wrestle fish management from the state and the public’s broader interest is wrong, and should fail.