ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — In November 1998, Minnesota voters passed a constitutional amendment on the ballot that is meant to preserve the state’s storied hunting and fishing heritage.
On Thursday, a coalition of Lake Mille Lacs resort owners and walleye anglers filed a lawsuit with the Minnesota Court of Appeals against the very state agency that’s supposed to protect that heritage — the Department of Natural Resources.
The amendment, which was passed by 75 percent of voters, promises a hunting and fishing heritage that’s forever preserved.
But a serious decline of the walleye population in Mille Lacs has some there saying the DNR is ignoring the state’s constitution.
“No one could have designed a better plan to destroy the fishing heritage on Lake Mille Lacs than the plan the DNR has implemented in the last 15 years,” said plaintiffs’ attorney, Erick Kaardal.
Kaardal filed the suit on behalf of the lakes’ businesses and walleye anglers. It charges the DNR with mismanagement that allowed the walleye population to tumble.
The suit alleges the DNR’s management strategy has changed the lake from a walleye fishery, to more trophy fishing for species like muskellunge, northern pike and small-mouth bass. Those are all predators that feed on young walleye fingerlings.
“When you do that and you have all these big fish in the lake, you’re going to have them eat the small fish,” said resort owner, Bill Eno. “So right now, it’s under heavy predation and the DNR’s been slow to react.”
With declining numbers of walleye in the lake, this year’s safe harvest is a mere fraction what it was 10 years ago. But it’s the DNR’s recent summer-long ban on popular night fishing that has resort owners and anglers most upset. Resorts, like Eno’s Twin Pines Resort, will typically generate 75 percent of their summer business on night launch fishing trips.
The DNR recently extended the normal three-week-long ban to the entire season, fearing that allowing night fishing would greatly risk an over harvest of the walleye quota.
While the agency has not formally responded to the lawsuit it is voicing strong disagreement, saying there’s no one or two issues causing the walleye decline.
Rather, says DNR spokesperson Chris Niskanen, it’s a combination of things — from invasive species, increasing water clarity and an explosion of weed growth — all contributing to predation of the young walleye.
Niskanen said the agency is working to find a way to protect the young walleye from a “gauntlet” of challenges.
He adds the DNR has called together an independent blue ribbon panel of fisheries experts to examine the agency’s data and management tools, and is hoping to have some answers by late summer.