So it is, just 17 days after making the most dramatic fisheries management decision in the long history of a great lake, Mille Lacs, the Department of Natural Resources on Thursday reversed itself, saying, “Never mind.”
The reason given, the agency said, for allowing live bait on Mille Lacs this summer less than three weeks after it was prohibited was that “feedback” the DNR received “from anglers and stakeholders” was — brace yourself — negative.
Late last month, the DNR said outlawing live bait on Mille Lacs beginning with the May 14 opener was necessary to maximize the chances walleye fishing would remain open there all year. Fishing for the state’s iconic finned species was halted last August for the first time on Mille Lacs when the state’s 28,600-pound walleye quota was reached.
The assumption, widely held outside the Mille Lacs area, is that the DNR’s initial stab at getting this season’s regulations right was the correct one. The best chance of keeping walleye fishing open on Mille Lacs from mid-May to early December this year is to restrict anglers to artificial bait only. Yet, and still, area resort owners and other businesses chose to pressure the DNR to allow anglers to bait-up, regardless the greater chances it will prompt another Mille Lacs walleye shutdown.
If only to follow through on a process with local stakeholders that had spanned months, including multiple lengthy discussions, one would have thought the DNR would stand its ground in the face of such advocacy, given that, as the agency has said repeatedly, it doesn’t quite know yet where the bottom of the Mille Lacs spawning walleye population is. And it doesn’t want to find out.
One would have thought as well the DNR would have considered carefully the likely stakeholder reaction to the bait ban, and therefore would have been prepared sufficiently to hang in there in the face of widespread negative reaction.
Perhaps that’s OK in this instance. Maybe the summer will be cool rather than steamy, reducing the number of released Mille Lacs walleyes (none can be kept) that die — fish that are included in the state’s 28,600-pound quota.
Maybe, then, walleye fishing, albeit catch-and-release, can stay open on Mille Lacs until December, even with anglers’ bait wells flush with minnows and leeches.
In that scenario, Mille Lacs businesses benefit, as do anglers.
But weakness projected, like strength projected, is habit forming, prompting concerns that too little backbone exists in the DNR building at 500 Lafayette Rd. in St. Paul.
Whether your pet natural-resource conflict is Mille Lacs or drained wetlands, lost prairies or the possibility of mining adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the prospect of the DNR managing with its finger to the wind is disconcerting indeed, given that conservation as practiced this century and forever more is and will be a contact sport.
One the weak will always lose.
Given Monday’s DNR flip-flop, even the most naïve Minnesotans can no longer believe science is the prime consideration in management of the state’s resources. Perhaps it never was. But the stakes are higher today, and the chances for catastrophic resource losses greater, as more and more people fight over a finite number of rivers, lakes and lands — and the life they support. Including ours.
Congratulations to Mille Lacs resort owners, bait sellers and legislators who raised a ruckus over the live-bait injunction and won an about-face from Gov. Mark Dayton and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.
They prevailed. This time.
But in the broader scheme of things, they, like the rest of us, along with the state’s fish and fowl, and critters large and small, will be the losers so long as the welfare of everything that lives in this state is tied more to politics than policies, convenience than conservation.