By Joe Fellegy Outdoor News March 11, 2011

I caught last Sunday night’s Outdoor Talk on KTLK, 100.3 FM, and heard a lively discussion about 2011 Mille Lacs fish allocations under “treaty fisheries management.” Rob Drieslein, Outdoor News editor and the show’s co-host, offered his take on what certainly is the most grotesque, costly, and high-impact legal-political-social fiasco on Minnesota’s fisheries scene.

“I want to be clear,” Rob said. “This tribal netting is completely ridiculous … I think it’s an abomination.” He was referring to tribal resource managers targeting spawning walleyes with a massive gill-net fishery.

Recent news reports focused on the respective 2011 state and tribal Mille Lacs fish allocations, especially the allowable Chippewa take of 142,500 pounds of walleye, up from 132,500 pounds last year. The bulk of tribal fish harvests at Mille Lacs, by eight 1837 Treaty bands (including six from Wisconsin), are taken with over 60 miles of reported gill net sets on the spawning reefs and shoals. The gill-net fishery occurs between ice-out and the state’s mid-May fishing opener, a period when Minnesota’s angling season is closed out of deference to concentrations of spawning fish.

Drieslein observed that most Minnesotans are detached. Indeed, many know little or nothing about this huge monster—its origins, how it works, and why it grows. Over the past two decades, I’ve observed how state government has mainly failed to defend state and citizen interests on this one. (Some high-ups actively worked to dig the hole.) And powerful forces in state politics and journalism have helped keep big “treaty management” issues off the front burner, thereby insulating the powerful Indian Industry.

Several timely points

The 50-50 question While news reports and angler chatter highlight the 2011 tribal walleye allocation’s increase by 10,000 pounds—to 142,500 pounds out of a total state-tribal combined allowable harvest of 540,000 pounds—something much bigger lurks out there. Over a decade ago, state DNR and legal personnel “negotiated” with their tribal counterparts the framework and protocols for resource allocations, harvests, and management. The state, ill advisedly, signed on to 50-50 splits of the overall Mille Lacs pike and perch allowable harvests. For example, this year tribal gill-netters may take up to 15,000 pounds of the 30,000-pound allowable pike harvest.

Given those 50-50 perch and pike splits—great precedents, eh?—at what point down the road, especially after a tribal five-year plan ends next year, might Indian Industry managers claim 50 percent of the Mille Lacs allowable walleye take? Were 50-50 in effect now, the 2011 tribal walleye allocation would be 270,000 pounds, or nearly twice the 142,500 pounds now drawing attention. How dramatically would a walleye 50-50 challenge state fisheries managers and squeeze their angler constituents?

Not affirmed Star Tribune writers consistently use the word “affirmed” when covering Mille Lacs treaty fish harvests and related management. Yes, courts affirmed that certain Chippewa bands can fish, hunt, and gather off-reservation outside state control. But “affirmed,” without due clarity, implies that everything about tribal harvests and management is affirmed by treaty or by the U.S. Supreme Court. In other words, butt out because the whole show is affirmed.

That’s nonsense. No court decisions or treaties exempted taxpayer-subsidized tribal management from the same scrutiny and political hardball that state resource-management agencies face daily. Insulating managers and policymakers, tribal or non-tribal, from the political arena is hardly a journalistic triumph.

Not about fish A popular myth, taught to young Indians and to others, is that “treaty rights” harvests are central to tribal culture and being Indian. Truth is that the 1990s Mille Lacs litigation and its fallout, like the quest for similar off-reservation harvests in the 1855 Treaty area, is all about expanding (and funding) Indian Industry authority and jurisdiction.

When Mille Lacs tribal government launched its lawsuit in 1990, rank ‘n file interest in fishing, let alone a massive spawning-time gill-net fishery, was about nil. I recall an early-’90s schmoozing party hosted by tribal lobbyist and Taste of Minnesota founder, the late Ron Maddox. Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Marge Anderson told me and other attendees that band members were uninterested in “exercising” treaty rights. Rather, she said, tribal government wanted the rights “recognized” – surely with the law and jurisdiction that implied.

About that time, Don Wedll, the non-Indian Mille Lacs Band DNR commissioner and an architect of the treaty-rights agenda, addressed the Minnesota Sportfishing Congress (MSC). Wedll assured our MSC gathering that the Band wasn’t into treaty rights Wisconsin-style and needed only two or three dozen “ceremonial” walleyes a year.

Marge Anderson’s no walleyes and Don Wedll’s 36 walleyes average out to 18 fish. The 21-year dollar total for Mille Lacs “treaty rights” costs—years of litigation, negotiation, and politics; operations of tribal and state management bureaucracies; hundreds of tons of political walleye and pike harvests; law enforcement; economic impacts on the sport fishery, etc. Divide those millions, whatever they are, by 18. We’ve got the priciest walleyes in world history. And that’s without the negative social costs and the compromised state management authority.