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Mille Lacs debate frustrates Dayton

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr on Thursday said he accepts responsibility for not devoting specific attention to the walleye crisis sooner. He described tentative plans to devote two permanent staff positions to full-time monitoring of the population. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr on Thursday said he accepts responsibility for not devoting specific attention to the walleye crisis sooner. He described tentative plans to devote two permanent staff positions to full-time monitoring of the population. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

On two occasions over three days, Gov. Mark Dayton staged a press conference to convey nearly identical messages. The basic point is that Dayton is concerned about both the ecology of Lake Mille Lacs and the businesses that rely on its walleye fishing tourist industry, and thinks the Legislature should hold a special session for targeted economic relief.

The slight but obvious difference came in tone. Dayton’s Thursday press conference had a whiff of frustration, if not incredulity. Maybe legislators simply hadn’t heard him correctly the first time.

“There’s some comments being made that are really not constructive to resolving either the emergency right now, or the long-term improvement of the lake,” Dayton said.

His exasperation came after two days of hearings by a legislative working group. That panel was ostensibly formed to debate remedies that could be approved during a one-day special session later this month. The Dayton administration favors zero-interest loans, and county property tax abatements, perhaps subsidized by the state general fund, but other options were to be considered as well.

The option some panelists seemed most interested in was finding a way to reopen the fishing season that was halted on Monday, and possibly avoiding a special session altogether. The former thought is a nonstarter, according to Dayton, who stands by the expert opinion of his Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff and Commissioner Tom Landwehr.

As to the need of a special session, Dayton challenged lawmakers to drop “all the other issues,” including DNR management of the lake, and take a for-or-against position, to help quell the nerves of Mille Lacs area businesses.

“They don’t need more uncertainty, they need help,” Dayton said. “The challenge here is to rise to the situation, and not devolve into political posturing and finger-pointing.”

Of course, in making that statement, Dayton was himself pointing a finger at the working group and its failure to focus on a short-term financial solution. Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, co-chair of the panel, shot back soon enough, issuing a statement to say the walleye crisis is “complex,” and faulted the administration for not bringing a broader, more detailed proposal to the working group.

He stressed that the legislative package needed to combine financial assistance and a new management plan for the walleye population.

“The working group has asked for both proposals in writing,” Hackbarth said. “We must keep in mind that a solution must expand beyond financial aid.”

Hackbarth’s Senate co-chair, Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, has been among the most vocal and candid members of the working group. On Wednesday, Tomassoni said loans would only leave resort owners with “more debt,” and direct subsidy would constitute a “handout.”  Instead, he has repeatedly pitched the idea of somehow keeping the Mille Lacs walleye season open for a short period of catch-and-release fishing.

Doing so, Tomassoni acknowledged, would require the state to renegotiate its agreements with eight tribal bands that also fish the lake, and would also further deplete the walleye count.

“I don’t know if the trigger was pulled too soon or not,” Tomassoni said Wednesday. “It seems to me, that this is a matter of two entities negotiating and saying, ‘OK, if we did take our limit, let us take a little bit more, and you take a little bit more,’ or whatever the case may be.”

Interviewed Thursday, Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said he is sympathetic to Tomassoni’s thinking, which also counts on the state’s ability to remove walleye from the lake to a state fishing hatchery as part of a restocking program.

“Sen. Tomassoni’s logic sure makes sense,” McNamara said. “We’ve done this before, and we came back from a more drastic position than we are in on Lake Mille Lacs. When we did that on Red Lake, there weren’t even any walleye in the lake to use as a base position.”

Dayton also backs the idea of restocking the lake, and Landwehr said work on that attempt could begin before summer’s end if the agency finds a suitable location to stage the fish breeding. But for Dayton, the restocking would work in conjunction with the fishing prohibition, and not as an alternative.

“To say, ‘just keep fishing for the rest of the season, even just catch-and-release,’ is a case of ignorance,” Dayton said.

Fish that were caught, dropped back into the lake and subsequently died accounted for five times the total weight of fish removed permanently, according to the DNR. The so-called “hooking mortality” rate has been questioned by some local residents, who say the agency is overestimating.

McNamara, for his part, said he is interested in Landwehr’s suggestion of switching to circle hooks, producing a lower mortality rate than other lures, or whether catch-and-release could resume when temperatures drop, which would also cut the death rate.

Those DNR approaches are expected to come up during the working group’s next hearing, scheduled for Thursday morning, though Dayton said the legislators should reconvene sooner. The governor, who will be gone for one week on a trade trip to Mexico, said the group should only need one more hearing to discuss the issuance of loans or tax relief, and the overall scope of an aid package, before he would be ready to call a special session.

The statement from Hackbarth, who retook the gavel after Tomassoni’s turn, indicated that the next meeting was still scheduled for Thursday morning.

The debate over the session could hinge on a turf war between the Legislature and the DNR. While Hackbarth, and other legislators, want to see and approve the management plan, Dayton remains confident in the agency’s ability to make its own changes based on biological findings. On Thursday, Landwehr said he accepts responsibility for not devoting specific attention to the walleye crisis sooner, and described tentative plans to devote two permanent staff positions to full-time monitoring of the population.

“It is an effort to both include biology, as well as improve local outreach and public education,” Landwehr said, adding that he still wants the chance to “discuss [the plan] with my boss, as well,” referring to Dayton.

“You just did,” Dayton quipped.

The “public education” portion of the DNR’s task will include legislators, too. McNamara, who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, said he would delay taking any strong stance before the next group hearing.

“We’ve asked [the DNR] to come back with a pretty wide amount of information,” McNamara said. “After it comes back have a better handle on biology of lake, and what we’d be able to do.”


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