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DNR draws fire for walleye cutoff

Anglers launch their boat on Lake Mille Lacs near Garrison, Minnesota, in this 2009 file photo. (AP file photo: Brainerd Dispatch)

Anglers launch their boat on Lake Mille Lacs near Garrison, Minnesota, in this 2009 file photo. (AP file photo: Brainerd Dispatch)

The last time Gov. Mark Dayton invited legislative leaders out for a fishing trip, the topics at hand were everything under the sun. This time, it’ll be about what’s under the water.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) brought walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs to an early halt on Monday, ending a major season for area sportsmen and tourists. The state has a strict walleye quota agreement with eight tribal bands that also fish the lake, and Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr warned that surpassing that quota could put the state in legal jeopardy.

The 2015 quota was cut from a planned 60,000 pounds to the current level of 40,000 pounds out of concern for the survival of walleye, which have not been surviving to full maturity in sufficient numbers in recent years. The current population in Lake Mille Lacs is the lowest measured level in three decades.

Landwehr and his agency have come under fire for their handling of the situation. Dayton, who called Monday a “dark day” for fishermen in Minnesota, defended his commissioner during a press conference that day, saying the DNR’s actions were best for the strength of the lake’s ecosystem.

The move to halt walleye fishing proved controversial with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as demonstrated in a Tuesday hearing to lay the groundwork for a potential special session, and resort owners are seeking direct relief for their lost business due to the decision.

Dayton faced nervous residents who spoke of the walleye’s economic impact for the area last week, and said on Monday he is sympathetic to those claims. But Dayton also said there is only so much he is willing to do to keep individual businesses afloat.

“It’s just not going to be an immediate turnaround,” Dayton said. “They’re going to have to make a difficult assessment about what their viability is.”

Dayton’s commissioners for the Department of Revenue and the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) presented the outline of a special session bill Tuesday, including the issuance of zero percent interest loans and property tax abatements for specifically selected classes of property. Either approach would require legislative approval through a special session, commissioners said.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbook, referenced similar instances of targeted relief for business owners on other lakes in the past, and said that experience indicates the Legislature should wait, maybe even until after the winter fishing season, to learn the extent of the economic damage.

“There’s no way that you’re going to know within a week or two what is going to be needed,” said Skoe, who said a special session later this month would be “premature.”

The governor, who heard from fishermen and members of the industry during town hall meetings last week, encouraged them to make their case again to a joint House and Senate working group during meetings this week and next. Working group co-chair Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, announced Tuesday that the legislators would meet again Wednesday morning, but would have to hold off on any additional meetings until the following week.

Dayton said he planned to travel to the lake again over the coming weekend to fish for other species, and invited House and Senate leaders — and the press — to join him there. Should they take him up on that offer, the scene would recreate a fishing trip earlier this spring when Dayon, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk met to try to forge a budget deal. Though spirits had remained high, that attempt failed, and the three sides continued negotiations throughout the weeks that followed.

Dayton will travel to Mexico for a previously scheduled trade mission next week, but hoped a one-issue special session could be prepared, even in his absence, for passage of a relief package sometime in mid-August. Dayton insisted on Monday that he would only agree to a special session that provided economic aid, despite Republican calls to reconsider the DNR agency budget.

Some legislators have questioned whether ending the season had been necessary in the first place.

“I am just absolutely shocked that it was shut down in the middle of the summer,” Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said Tuesday, asking Landwehr why fishing, even just catch-and-release, could not continue through Labor Day.

Landwehr admitted it was the “single worst action” the agency had been forced to take during his four-plus years in that position, but argued the short-term pain was necessary for the lake’s long-term viability.

“We could’ve gotten more restrictive prior to this step,” Landwehr said. “If we go grossly over the sustainable harvest this year, we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Dayton, speaking Monday, said he stood by the opinion of the department’s experts, if not their behavior, saying he was aware of many complaints about poor relations between staff and local residents.

“Whenever I hear that people are not [hearing] the people that pay their salaries, especially under these circumstances, that needs a remedy,” said Dayton, who suggested that firing negligent employees was a better solution than changing DNR policy.

Tomassoni co-chairs the working group with Hackbarth, chair of the House Mining and Outdoor Recreation Committee, and both questioned whether the state had needed to take such a drastic step if it created an immediate need for economic relief.

“I think something else could’ve been done along these lines,” Hackbarth said. He added, challenging DNR leaders: “You guys have got to have been thinking about this, and what route to take and what direction to go. What’s the fix?”

Potential long-term management strategies could include stocking the lake with walleyes hatched in state-run fisheries. But maintaining the unique genetics of Mille Lacs walleye would require the DNR to first draw those fish from that lake, and take them to a hatching site, possibly the state facility in Brainerd, before reintroducing them.

Tuesday’s hearing was mostly used to explore scientific explanations and the biological facts behind the DNR’s decision, but Hackbarth also asked Cabinet members to begin suggesting economic remedies for affected businesses. Apparently dissatisfied with the broader recommendations proposed during that hearing, he requested that commissioners return with more specific ideas the following morning.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, whose district borders the lake, added that state departments should look for “money lying around that hasn’t been expended, that perhaps we could repurpose,” instead of devoting new general fund dollars to the problem.

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