Lawmakers hold hearing on Sternberg report

Provided by the office of State Rep. Sondra Erickson, who’s district includes Mille Lacs Lake.

Lawmakers in St. Paul say they want to help find common ground for those interested in the future of Lake Mille Lacs and with competing interests in the management of the lake, according to Rep. Sondra Erickson (R - Princeton), after participating in a joint informational hearing of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance committees April 30 in the capital city.

Rep. Erickson helped bring the two committees together for a public meeting after the release of a report about the management of the Lake Mille Lacs fishery by Dick Sternberg. Sternberg, a former Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, presented a proposed fisheries management plan for the lake at the hearing. About 30 persons from the area, including Terry McQuoid and Bill and Linda Eno, attended.

By the end of the nearly three-hour-long hearing, some committee members suggested the formation of a task force to examine the issue of management of the lake. Rep. Bill Haas (R- Champlin) and owner of lake property near Malmo called Mille Lacs “a resource of statewide significance” and told committee members that the Legislature needs to become more involved in the process used for Lake Mille Lacs fisheries management and should form a group of stakeholders to discuss the issue with DNR.

The process to which Rep. Haas referred is that used by the DNR as they negotiate with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission about the best way to ensure that the fish harvest protects a 1999 Supreme Court decision upholding the Treaty of 1837, allowing the Mille Lacs Band and several Wisconsin bands to continue to hunt and fish as they did under the treaty.

“It is the citizens’ resource and that is why we are here,” Rep. Mark Holsten (R-Stillwater) said, chairman of the finance division, as the hearing began. What followed was an hour-long summary of Sternberg’s 26-page report that is critical of the DNR. Sternberg spoke to the committee and a room full of spectators including natural resource personnel from the Mille Lacs Band. After a series of slides showing his data about the increase in walleye size and the declining number of bait fish, Sternberg asked, “How long can these walleyes hang on without much to eat?”

Stating that the DNR’s main concern is to keep walleye harvest within the quota, Sternberg said that “by doing so, the DNR ignores the issue of population imbalance, which poses a far more significant threat to the fishery than a quota infraction.”

The DNR challenged Sternberg’s findings and dismissed his concerns about a heavy concentration of large walleyes. Ron Payer, director of the DNR fisheries division, said he does not believe the walleye population will collapse. He said over-harvesting is a greater threat than oversize walleyes.

Jack Wingate, DNR fisheries research manager, challenged Sternberg’s assertion that the larger fish are responsible for the lake’s dwindling bait fish population.

Besides hearing scientific analyses, committee members also heard testimony from three residents/business owners of the Lake Mille Lacs area, who pointed to cancelled reservations, disgruntled anglers and tourists, slumping sales in food, gasoline, pull tabs and beer. Furthermore, they pointed to a decline in the number of sporting tournaments.

According to Rep. Erickson, the management of Mille Lacs will stay on the radar screen of the legislature. “We [legislator] do not want to micromanage the DNR, but we do need to ensure a balanced approach to fisheries management. DNR has to realize that there is always room for improvement; that there are guides and anglers and others who know the lake as well, if not better than the DNR, and they [DNR] can learn from them. We also want to empower the agency to stand up for the state when they negotiate with the bands.”

Rep. Erickson said no official action was taken to organize a task force such as the one suggested by Rep. Haas, but that she hoped a group of stakeholders, legislators and others could begin talks during the interim.

(This article contains information from Sarah McKenzie of the Minnesota House of Representative Public Information Office) Representative Erickson can be reached at:

Rep. Sondra Erickson
407 State Office Building
100 Constitution Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55155