Scarcity of some baitfish in Lake Mille Lacs and the dynamics of how aquatic invasive species contribute to the Mille Lacs walleye crisis will take center stage Friday morning when the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) launches its annual roundtable with outdoors stakeholders.

The invitation-only crowd will assemble not only for remarks by DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr and his fisheries chief, Don Pereira. A keynote address of sorts will come from professional angler Tony Roach, a guide and tournament fisherman on Mille Lacs since the early 2000s.

“I’ll show a few things I’m seeing out there,” said Roach, who spends close to 300 days a year fishing, most of it on Mille Lacs.

Roach said he’ll discuss shortages of yellow perch and spottail minnows, two baitfish that provide critical forage for the lake’s walleyes. The smaller fish rely on an ecosystem of nutrients that has been disrupted by invasive species, including plankton-filtering zebra mussels, the DNR believes.

“2007 was our last good perch hatch,” Roach said.

The one-day DNR roundtable at Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Center is a forum for the most-pressing fish and wildlife issues in the state. The event is expected to draw an appearance by Gov. Mark Dayton and include an update on the governor’s 2015 clean-water initiative to require permanent vegetative buffers along waterways to block farm chemical runoff and stream- and ditch-bank sloughing.

In the afternoon, participants will break into small groups for varied discussions in three disciplines: ecological and water resources, fisheries and wildlife. This year’s wildlife roundtable will include an hourlong presentation on deer management, including an update on the management plan for whitetails in the southwestern part of the state.

Shorter wildlife breakout sessions will cover the DNR’s fostering of wild elk herds in the north, the use of nontoxic shot by hunters in wildlife management areas and the governor’s pheasant action plan.

“It’s an event that tries to set the tone for the DNR’s highlighted projects,” said Kevin Lines, a veteran DNR game manager who will unveil a draft format for the first Pheasant Report Card, due out in March.

The report card, modeled after a similar accountability tool that tracks the performance of Minnesota’s $100 million-a-year Clean Water Fund, is considered a crucial piece of the DNR’s ambitious plan to re-establish Minnesota as a pheasant-hunting state.

The report card will measure progress on 10 actions needed to rebuild the ringneck population with necessary prairie grass habitat. 

The action plan, which stemmed from a pheasant summit called by Dayton in December 2014, was launched last fall with great fanfare.

“We want to make sure we are holding ourselves to stiff outcomes,” Lines said.

A major piece of the plan already trending in the right direction is funding, he said. Lines will report on a proposed $800 million federal-state conservation partnership to obtain permanent use of 100,000 acres of private land for prairie grass restoration and clean-water buffers.

“That’s the most significant piece in the pheasant plan in my opinion,” Lines said.

The DNR already has secured a three-year, $1.7 million federal grant to bolster its walk-in access program for pheasant and other hunters.

On the fisheries side, the DNR will review proposed northern pike regulations that are meant to address an overabundance of small pike in north-central Minnesota, increase pike populations in the south and protect large pike in the northeast.

Fish management plans for Lake Superior, Leech Lake and Red Lake also will be discussed, along with trout habitat and proposed new muskie lakes. The roundtable coincides with the release this week of a new five-year DNR plan of habitat protections, fingerling stocking, special regulations, cormorant control and expanded cisco sampling, with a goal of making Leech a high-quality, sustainable fishery.

Roach, meanwhile, said cisco, or tullibee, also are an important forage fish in Mille Lacs. Cisco numbers have spiked in recent years, providing a baitfish bridge for walleyes, Roach said. But cisco populations are sensitive to the warming water temperature Mille Lacs has experienced in recent summers. And as they grow, they become less attractive prey for smaller walleyes.

Roach said he’ll discuss some positive developments on Mille Lacs and not “point fingers” at the DNR for management decisions that preceded last year’s sudden and unprecedented shutdown of walleye fishing to protect the species.

The combined result of all the factors is a critical imbalance in the lake’s food chain where a hungry population of bigger walleyes has turned into an “eating machine” against small walleyes, he said.

“Are we out of the dark?” Roach asked. “No. But there are some things moving in the right direction.”