Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Minnesota legislators taking note of Lake Mille Lacs situation

Isle, Minn. — With the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee set to hear about an external review of Mille Lacs fisheries management, those concerned with the lake’s walleyes also were anticipating what the coming open-water season might look like.

State and tribal officials are set to hash things out for the coming season on Feb. 6, during a meeting of the closed-to-the-public Minnesota 1837 Ceded Territory Fisheries Technical Committee.

Last year, however, negotiations took an extended amount of time before the sides agreed on a catch-and-release season for state anglers, including a 21-day walleye closure in July and a season that concluded ultimately following Labor Day. That was announced March 21.

“We haven’t finalized numbers yet,” said DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira, noting that the FTC recently held a conference call to go over technical issues – a precursor to the Feb. 6 meeting. “It would be premature to say (how the negotiations are going).”

The FTC, made up of representatives of the DNR and the Indian bands in the treaty, has come under the microscope in recent years because of the restrictive open-water walleye seasons it has decided on, in meetings that are off-limits to the public. The FTC was set up following the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the bands’ hunting and fishing rights.

Last year, there was backlash after FTC agreement documents, which included a statement that suggested the document was not public record, came to public light, with critics accusing the DNR of not being completely forthcoming about the details of the deal, which included plans for state anglers to pay back the overage of walleyes taken the previous summer during the next couple of years. Those details, while missed by some, were largely shared during a March teleconference the DNR held with the press.

But the incident fueled further frustration held by some members of the MLFAC who had pushed for a few of its members to be able to attend the FTC meeting, an effort that has been repeatedly thwarted by the bands.

“Because they are under court protocol, they are not subject to the public meeting law,” Pereira said. “The bands really defend that protocol.”

The DNR has been allowed to invite state legislators to the meetings as silent observers.

“One of the things that is really difficult is that I am invited to attend, but we don’t participate,” said Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point. “We are allowed only to observe.”

Ruud, as chair of the Senate’s Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee, has been extended the invitation to attend the meetings, along with Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee.

Ruud was planning on attending the Feb. 6 meeting, and said it can be challenging to follow the technical discussion among mostly scientists.

She defended the job the DNR has done at the negotiating table, an effort that has been called into question by some Mille Lacs observers.

“I actually thought the DNR did a really good job at the last meeting that I was at, making their case, bringing forward the data, challenging data that they didn’t believe was true,” Ruud said. “I think they did a good job of standing up for us. But I think their hands are tied as to what they can do. They are always looked at as the bad guy, which I don’t think they are. They are under some really tight constraints that are not easy to work within.”

The DNR has tried to be more transparent regarding the meetings. It began posting the FTC meeting agenda and minutes, and documents, on its website, Pereira said.

“After we receive documents, and they are in our possession, those documents are in the public domain,” Pereira said. “Now …we will put them up on our website.”

In the House, Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, chair of the House’s Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, and Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, chair of the Subcommittee on Mining, Forestry and Tourism, also have been extended FTC meeting invites.

All but Swedzinski were interviewed for this story, and while Fabian and Ingebrigtsen have attended past meetings, it appeared Ruud might be the only legislative representative at the Feb. 6 meeting held in Brainerd.

“Technical meeting are boring, but I can certainly see the perception of the sportfishermen over the lack of trust or just the perception of not allowing somebody from MLFAC to be there,” Ingebrigtsen said. “I have been working for the public my whole life, and I don’t understand locking anybody out of meetings, unless it’s for personnel reasons. … It just blows me away.”

Ingebrigtsen, who fished the lake last August with Fabian, said he has a hard time fathoming why no walleyes should be kept, with every angler he’s talked to about the lake noting that high numbers of walleyes that have been caught in recent years.

Ingebrigtsen made note of bills that have come across his desk that would aid the struggling Mille Lacs-related business community.

Fabian, who said he was hoping to attend Thursday’s MLFAC meeting, said he himself is quite frustrated with the consecutive conservative fishing seasons that have hurt Mille Lacs tourism.

“This is an extremely serious situation,” he said, noting the lack of people around during his August fishing trip for smallmouths with Ingebrigtsen. “I have met with a lot of folks around the lake, and I hear their frustration. … I can’t imagine how stressful it is for those businesses, not knowing or anticipating the possibility of the season closing at any time.”

Fabian said the lack of representation from the community affected at the FTC meetings didn’t make sense to him.

“I disagree with lots of folks on lots of different issues, but rarely has it prevented me from sitting down with people,” he said. “It would be good for the process, and good for the relationships between the different groups, if they could talk things over.”

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