By Rob Drieslein, Outdoor News Editor, December 23, 2011
At a special meeting of die Mille Lacs Fishery Input Group this month, area business owners, anglers, and residents went on record objecting to the Ojibwe spring gill-net fishery on the big lake. It was a call to action directed at the DNR, which represents state’s side of the treaty fishery management apparatus.
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. DNR Fish and Wildlife Division Director Ed Boggess says the agency is discussing the input group’s 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” Boggness told me.
It was 15 years ago, January 1997 that District Court Judge Michael Davis ruled the band’s 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 stale 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.
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 eloquently pointing out that any system of apartheid based on race is inherently misdirected in reference to Mille Lacs. 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.
For tribal netting to end, it will require governors, congressmen, or presidents to tackle it. 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 discontent.
The majority ruling, that is, the five 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.
December 23, 2011
BY Rob Drieslein