MILWAUKEE — The state Department of Natural Resources and the Chippewa tribes in northern Wisconsin are locking horns again, this time over the tribes’ plan to dramatically increase the number of walleye harvested this spring.
The Chippewa bands’ announcement last week ratcheted up the conflict in what has been a sometimes contentious relationship between the tribes, the state and nontribal neighbors. Tribes already were upset over state moves to allow a wolf hunt and to relax certain mining standards, and their latest announcement invites comparison to a situation decades ago when the resumption of spearfishing spawned protests from other residents that escalated into violent confrontations.
The six tribal bands on Friday declared their intent to spear 59,399 fish, saying the amount was consistent with their responsibilities to feed their communities.
However, they don’t always take as many fish as they declare. Last year they declared 54,057 walleye but only managed to spear 32,321.
“More and more tribal citizens are relying upon Mother Earth’s gifts as an integral part of a healthier diet and a holistic lifestyle enriched by cultural and spiritual pursuits,” James Zorn, the executive director of the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, said in a statement Tuesday.
The DNR acknowledges the tribes’ legal right to hunt and fish in ceded territory, but DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said the agency hoped to negotiate a decrease in their declared intentions.
Almost 30 years ago an appeals court affirmed that Chippewa Indian tribes retained off-reservation fishing and hunting rights in 1837 and 1842 treaties that ceded millions of acres of what is now the northern third of Wisconsin to the U.S. government.
It led to a revival of an ancient Chippewa practice — spearing spawning walleyes from lakes in the spring — and led to fears from hook-and-line anglers that the fisheries would be ruined by a fishing method they claimed wasn’t sporting at all.
The resumption of spearfishing prompted demonstrations by treaty-rights opponents at boat landings in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The protests sometimes escalated into racial taunts and rock-throwing. No one was seriously hurt, but tensions forced dozens of law enforcement officers to guard the lakes.
The protests died down after the Lac du Flambeau band filed federal lawsuits alleging the demonstrations were racially motivated.
Now, under a formula for sharing the fishery with hook-and-line anglers and for making sure the fishery continues to reproduce itself, the Chippewa annually request a total of walleyes to spear. That figure is used to set daily bag limits for anglers, but the number is adjusted if the tribes fall short of their declared total.
Before spearfishing, the daily limits were five walleyes. After estimating the possible effects of the bands’ declarations this year the DNR has reduced bag limits — seven lakes will have a three-walleye limit, 331 lakes will have a limit of two fish, and on 197 lakes the limit is a single walleye.
Might tensions simmer again this year when nontribal anglers see their bag limits reduced to as few as one? Not necessarily, said John Gozdzialski, the DNR’s regional director for northern Wisconsin. He said the tribal harvest issue was new in the 1980s and not very well understood, but the DNR has spent the past few decades helping the tribes better explain the process.
“There’s been a lot of education in the last 25 years,” he said. “We’re certainly hoping (the confrontations) would not reoccur.”
Tribal leaders, who did not immediately return messages left Tuesday, have been upset lately over a number of issues stemming from the perception that they haven’t been consulted on issues that directly affect them.
State lawmakers angered the tribes last year year when they passed a bill creating the state’s first organized wolf hunt. Republicans also pushed through a mining bill that streamlined the process for obtaining a mining permit, a law that tribes worry will devastate what they say is the last pristine environment in Wisconsin.
Gozdzialski said he didn’t interpret the tribes’ aggressive fishing declaration as payback for the wolf hunt and mining law. He reiterated that the Chippewa are acting within their tribal rights, and that the DNR works with them to ensure the long-term health of fisheries in the areas.
He also noted that the DNR would try to negotiate the declared number of walleye downward.
“We have long enjoyed a good partnership with the tribes,” he said. “We’re going to continue to have conversations and consultations with them as a means to address some of the concerns. I wouldn’t view (their actions) as a protest whatsoever.”