DNR criticizes tribes' spring walleye spearing level
March 19, 2013 • RON SEELY | Wisconsin State Journal
The state's Chippewa tribes Monday set spring walleye spearing levels so high that recreational anglers would only be allowed a one-walleye bag limit on 197 lakes, a move that drew sharp criticism from the state Department of Natural Resources.
Normally within the past 15 years, the Chippewa have named no more than 10 lakes at spearing levels that would result in recreational anglers being limited to one walleye per day from the lakes. DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp called this year's change a "drastic increase" and slammed the move as being "significant, unprecedented and a challenge to long-standing partnerships."
Tom Maulson, chairman of the Lac du Flambeau band of Chippewa, said higher spearing quotas were set by the tribe this year to allow tribal members to put more fish in their freezers because of the poor economy.
But Maulson didn't completely discount growing anger among the bands at the state for what the tribes see as the state's failure to adequately consult with the Chippewa on recent controversial issues such as the first wolf hunt and the state Legislature's rewrite of mining laws to ease the way for a huge open-pit iron mine near the Bad River Chippewa reservation.
"They never even considered the tribes," Maulson said.
The Chippewa spear walleye on lakes throughout northern Wisconsin every spring under rights they reserved in treaties in the 1800s. Those treaties allow tribal members to hunt, fish and gather off their reservations on land they ceded in the agreements — about the northern third of the state. The treaties were upheld in federal court in the late 1990s after violent and racially tinged confrontations on northern boat landings as the Chippewa began spearing off-reservation lakes to reestablish their rights.
This spring the Chippewa have indicated they will spear on 535 northern lakes. In addition to the 197 on which spearing will result in a one-walleye recreational daily bag limit, 331 lakes would have a two-walleye daily bag limit as a result of tribal spearing, and seven would have a three-walleye bag limit. The normal bag limit is five. The northern lakes set at a one-walleye bag limit include the Three Lakes Chain, part of the Eagle Chain and a number of popular walleye lakes.
Stepp said the tribe is acting lawfully and within its rights to set such quotas and added that the increased spearing numbers would not affect the health of the fishery.
But Stepp said the change goes against arrangements and agreements under which the state and the Chippewa have operated since the spearfishing confrontations of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Stepp especially singled out the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa for criticism and more. She said the band, traditionally the most active spearers, said they will spear on 233 lakes, including 232 at levels that will require a two-fish daily bag limit for recreational anglers.
Those levels, Stepp said, violate a 16-year memorandum of agreement under which the band sets spearing levels to keep lakes at a three-walleye recreational bag limit. Also under the agreement, the band received $84,500 a year from the state for maintaining the three-bag limit as well as revenue generated from the sale of snowmobile, ATV and fishing license sales on reservations.
Those payments will now be withheld, according to Stepp. She added that the DNR will work with the tribe over the next few weeks to negotiate a reduction in their declared spearing levels.
"I remain committed to building on the successful partnerships we have expanded upon and enjoyed together over my two years as DNR secretary," Stepp said. "However, I will stand up for state interests, including angler harvest opportunities and the benefits they bring to local economies."
Maulson said the Chippewa are within their rights to increase spearing levels. "The state is really overreacting," he added.
In an interview Monday, Maulson at first said recent disagreements between the Chippewa over wolf hunting and mining had little to do with the spearing quotas. Later, however, he did mention what he said was the state's failure to involve the tribe in discussions about Wisconsin's first wolf hunt or changes in mining laws that pave the way for a 4 ½-mile-long open pit mine to be built at the headwaters of the Bad River, which nourishes rice beds on the Bad River reservation.
"If that mine is going to dirty the waters, who is going to lose?" Maulson asked.
Adding to the tensions was a tribal musky spearing tournament held on the Lac du Flambeau reservation last weekend. Maulson said only 14 musky were speared during the gathering, which he said was intended to honor treaty rights. The fish are being given to elders for food, he added.
Maulson said the tribe is willing to sit down with the state and discuss spearing levels.
"We're keeping in touch," Maulson said. "I don't think we have a bad relationship."
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