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Dayton sees 'resentment' from public at walleye forum

Gov. Mark Dayton addresses a standing-room-only crowd inside Isle High School Auditorium near Lake Mille Lacs during a public forum regarding the potential early closure of the walleye fishing season. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

ISLE, Minn. - Gov. Mark Dayton took heat from a raucous crowd Friday during a standing-room-only public meeting on the Minnesota government's potential early halting of the walleye fishing season on Mille Lacs Lake.

Held inside a packed high school auditorium in the resort town of Isle near the lake, several commenters drew enthusiastic cheers and applause after they railed against perceived mismanagement of the lake's dwindling walleye population by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and gill netting by Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Others feared that resorts and tourism jobs would disappear.

"The DNR's numbers are skewed from the beginning," one woman said. "From the minute they say that netting over spawn beds is not affecting the walleye population, that's nuts."

Dayton told reporters afterward that the comments showed him the depth of the "bitterness and resentment" toward the DNR, calling the lack of trust between the residents and the agency "totally unacceptable."

However, the crowd gave a standing ovation when Dayton announced Mille Lacs Band Chairwoman Melanie Benjamin had offered to suspend the tribe's gill netting of walleye on the lake next year.

"It came as a wonderful surprise to me," Dayton said.

In addition, Dayton and legislators are preparing for a likely special session of the Minnesota Legislature as soon as next week, where a potential $20 million financial aid package to resorts could be considered.

"We've got to do everything we can to keep your businesses going during this immediate crisis," Dayton said during the forum.

The state would likely announce on Monday whether or not it would close the season early, Dayton said. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr has said that the lake's walleye harvest quota likely would be exceeded by Monday, forcing the agency to close the season. The quota is set as part of a Mille Lacs co-management agreement with eight Chippewa bands under a federal ruling.

Commenters from the audience Friday lambasted the ruling as well, calling it unjust.

Following heated exchanges with commenters during the forum, Dayton told people to stay away from criticizing Indian walleye management.

"If you're going to slap in the face people who have just made a huge sacrifice to move this thing forward, it's very ill-advised," he said.

When one commenter spoke of the "extremist and unacceptable working of the Mille Lacs Pacific Treaty fisheries management," Dayton cut him off.

"We're not going to go into racist rants here," Dayton said, raising his voice. "No, I'm not going to do it!"

"This has nothing to do with racism!" the man shot back. He went on to say the management system he was referencing was run by the DNR and he wasn't specifically talking about Indian fishing.

"Mille Lacs lives matter," he said. "Treaty fisheries management Mille Lacs-style has to go."

Other commenters offered more staid suggestions on how to deal with the situation, such as stocking the walleye-heavy areas with minnows to help feed them, creating a walleye fish hatchery on the lake, or depopulating pervasive flocks of black cormorants that prey on walleye.

In a letter addressed to Commissioner Landwehr on Friday, Chairman Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin and Rep. Sondra Erickson, R- Princeton asked that Lake Mille Lacs remain open to fishing for walleye, but only for catch and release.

"With a short time remaining in the 2015 fishing season and an upcoming ice fishing season, we believe it is vital to the local economy to keep the fishery to walleye fishing on a catch and release basis and that this will result in the most positive economic results for the community," the letter read.

Lueck and others have encouraged Dayton to form a working group to assess the Mille Lacs situation and establish a course of action. Lueck welcomes continued feedback from local citizens and can be reached by emailing rep.dale.lueck@house.mn or by calling 218-927-2495.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn, was also present at the forum along with state legislators. He was supportive of trying to control the cormorants, saying they had come back after the federal government's ban on DDT pesticides.

"The governor seemed open to just about all the suggestions made here today," Nolan said. "I was pleased with the spirit of the meeting. Everybody, for the most part, is committed to 'let's work together.'"

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