The Mille Lacs monster, and that glaring state leadership void

By Joe Fellegy -- Outdoor News, April 25, 2012

This spring’s record early ice-outs and many weeks of pre-season open water have anglers guessing. Come opening weekend, how advanced will the annual fish cycles be? Depending on location and pre-season weather trends, should we think late May, or mid June, or even early summer? Or? Did walleyes spawn early or did it sorta dribble along? Hey, it’s rare territory for anglers, and for the fish.

Far more certain: the Mille Lacs fishing community gets slapped with the biggest ongoing public-relations debacle in Minnesota fishing history, thanks to “treaty fisheries management.” The Mille Lacs-as-an-issue news cycle never ends. Fish-population survey findings, input meetings, state-tribal technical committee meetings, fish allocations, safe allowable harvests, angler regulations, five-year-plan announcements, and updates on each side’s estimated harvest totals. Good May-June walleye angling brings speculation about tighter mid-season reg changes. (And this year we’re in Condition Three, with no overages allowed!)

Don’t forget the annual spring gill-netting spectacle. Curious lakeshore residents and other gawkers watch 100-foot nets being set and pulled, fish handled and mishandled, and who’s monitoring and not monitoring whom and where. Drivers-by see net markers on the lake, fish-laden gill nets draped across public access parking lots, and fish tubs and fillet tables in view of state highways. Add frequent news updates, banter on social media, and on-the-lake views via webcams. Given citizen conservation values and cultural sensitivities, it spurs a negative public mood, a perpetual cloud over Mille Lacs.

The high costs on many fronts, and the disproportionate impacts, are intolerable. Yet state leadership—like DNR personnel, the Governor’s office, legislators, and the Minnesota Attorney General’s office—ruthlessly turn their backs, doing and saying nothing to change the course of events, or even to bond with the constituents who pay their salaries. How, many ask, can this whole crowd remain in do-nothing, say-nothing, and denial modes on such big costly stuff?

I repeat my take from years of observation: When the topic is tribal all the usual standards of government, politics, journalism, and academics go out the door! The public’s “right to know” and government accountability get scrapped. Big and legitimate issues that would normally rate high-level discussion and debate can’t be issues at all. Hard questions about policy matters, dollar costs, and who decides what and why, are discouraged. When state and Indian Industry operatives meet, secrecy reigns. (This sick environment allowed the deep Mille Lacs hole to get dug in the 1990s—an epic tale of intrigue and rogue behavior by state DNR and Attorney General’s Office personnel who escaped transparency, accountability, and calls for investigations and firings.)

When government leaders and journalists (of all people!) keep policymakers off the hook, and discourage high-level discussion and debate of big issues, bad stuff happens. Public ignorance abounds too, even among the usually well-informed. And citizen anger and frustration are too often misdirected. Regarding the Mille Lacs madness, interested citizen-anglers should focus on government agencies who run and maintain the show—not on the Indian people who are often manipulated pawns under rights-denying Mao-style governments.

This is important stuff, impacting communities, state natural resources and management agencies, the public purse, and more. Yet leaders and media don’t ask questions like these (and many more):

• Over the past 20 years, tribal management agencies like GLIFWC and Chippewa band DNRs, who play significant roles on Minnesota’s resource-management stage, have received 100s of millions in federal tax dollars. Who debates and decides? Where does the buck stop? And to whom are these agencies, their spending priorities, and their policies and practices accountable?

• Minnesota has long employed some of the nation’s finest fisheries biologists. For example, the scope of fish-population and fishery research and assessment at Mille Lacs over the years is remarkable. But, especially with treaty-fisheries management, there’s a powerful political side. Fisheries scientists become policymakers and get political. (Remember the University of Minnesota fisheries prof, Dr. George Spangler, who in the 1990s suggested that Minnesota surrender management of its largest fishery, Mille Lacs, to tribal management.) Who, from Aitkin to St. Paul and beyond, are DNR’s key deciders on specific treaty-management issues? And why do they escape media and political hot seats?

• How have court opinions, lawmaking, and government doings changed the state-federal-tribal jurisdictional map? Whose laws, policies, and enforcement apply to whom and where—as with tribal treaty-harvesters across millions of acres of ceded territories? Do Minnesota’s aquatic invasive species laws and policies cover treaty-harvester boats and equipment at Mille Lacs (the state’s zebra mussel capital) and elsewhere? Could DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr issue a commissioner’s order banning the millions of feet of gill net material and miles of net sets from the mussel-covered walleye-spawning shoals at Mille Lacs?

• Why do DNR and pike-focused groups sidestep the biggest pike scandal in Minnesota—the tons of mainly unwanted (and often tossed) pike by-catch in Mille Lacs gill nets? Veteran gill-netters, including DNR Fisheries staff, know how pike twist, tangle, and die in gill nets, regardless of water temps. Yet there’s no pike-release mortality assessed to netters at Mille Lacs. That helps ‘em dodge the pike quota, which enables continued walleye netting.