Treaty issue demands top-down leadership
At a special meeting of the Mille Lacs Fishery Input Group in
early December, area business owners, anglers, and residents went
on record objecting to the Chippewa spring gill-net fishery on the
big lake. It was a call to action directed at the DNR, which
represents the state’s side of the treaty fishery management
DNR fall fish surveys showed the second-lowest levels of
walleyes since monitoring began in 1983. Surveying errors aside
(always possible) it appears small male fish are getting pounded by
tribal nets that treaty management has wrought.
Simultaneously, we saw pretty good fishing on Mille Lacs this
fall. Early ice reports have been pretty good, albeit limited,
given the fits and starts to the hard-fishing season this mild
winter. That portends to a good bite next spring and summer.
DNR Fish and Wildlife Division Director Ed Boggess says the
agency is discussing the input group’s recent resolution, but the
DNR maintains that it cannot object to methods the bands use to
kill walleyes. There are safe harvest numbers and allocations, and
it’s a question of whether the bands stay within their quota.
“Nets in and of themselves are not a conservation issue; we have
to look at in context of effect on fishery,” Boggess told me.
It was 15 years ago, January 1997, that District Court Judge
Michael Davis ruled the bands’ fishing and hunting activities in
the 12-county region were to be regulated by the bands’
Conservation Code. Treaty harvest on Mille Lacs is as ridiculous
now as it was back then. The practical effects of the 1998 U.S.
Supreme Court ruling, which the black-robed adjudicators cared
nothing about, have created a quagmire for area citizens and state
fishermen and taxpayers. The only reason more state citizens aren’t
offended is because they think it doesn’t affect them, though their
taxes finance the thing.
An aside: I always found it inconsistent that courts ruled that
tribal rights only existed on public lands and waters. If these
rights exist in the 1837 Treaty area, then shouldn’t the ruling
affect private land, too? There’s a simple reason why the courts
restricted rulings to public lands and waters: All hell would’ve
broken loose if every landowner in the 13-million-acre affected
area had to allow tribal hunting on his land.
You’ve got to hand it to the bands. They brought the 1837 Treaty
case forward during a narrow window of time when they had a shot at
winning. At the time, we all knew Sandra Day O’ Conner would be the
swing vote, and she was – even writing the majority opinion. Today,
I dare anyone to find me a legal expert who believes the bands
could win the same case. They’d lose 5-4, maybe 6-3.
In 14 years of reporting on this topic, I’ve seen one
DNR official, former Commissioner Al Garber, take an assertive tact
in dealing with the bands. Later, former Commissioner Gene Merriam
unfairly got slammed for, in reference to Mille Lacs, eloquently
pointing out that any system of apartheid based on race is
inherently misdirected. Since the treaty rights battle began in the
1990s, DNR has never been particularly interested in advocating for
the state’s cause. That hasn’t changed.
In the past, however, I at least detected some sense of empathy
from former DNR Fisheries chief Ron Payer and his team. These days,
per Joe Fellegy’s column in the Dec. 23 edition of Outdoor News,
DNR staffers appear less interested in feeling the pain of Mille
Lacs Input Group participants. We’re in Condition 3 – deal with
More than a decade has passed but the stench of treaty
management still shrouds a 13-million-acre swath of the state.
Overages, underages, hooking mortality, gill nets, Conditions 3s –
all so divisive and unnecessary. Yet state leaders, both elected
and unelected, stare blankly ahead unable to craft a solution.
Here’s mine. It’s been mine since 1998, and I’m sticking to
For tribal netting to end, it will require governors, congressmen,
or presidents to solve. Since the 1998 ruling, we’ve had an
Independence Party governor, a Republican governor and a Democratic
governor, and none have addressed the tribal harvest on Mille Lacs.
When the topic is tribal, everyone runs for political cover, so
citizens must demand action. Gov. Mark Dayton always wants everyone
to get along. Well, Mr. Governor, we’ve got separate rights for
separate people across a huge swath of your state and it’s breeding
The majority ruling, that is, the five Supreme Court judges who
sided with the bands, went out of their way to point out that while
Zachary Taylor’s 1855 order did not stand, these hunting and
fishing rights do exist at the pleasure of the president. A future
president can indeed repeal these rights, but no president will act
without pressure from state leadership.
Our governor, our AG’s office, the DNR, Rep. Chip Cravaack (who
represents the area) and our entire U.S. congressional delegation
should do now what the Sando DNR and Humphrey’s AG office should
have done 15 years ago: Consult and partner with their counterparts
in Wisconsin to seek a presidential order ending this.