Wisconsin's strong walleye fishery and the tourism it produces are very important in Northern Wisconsin. As Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, sustaining our fishery is foremost in my priorities when I negotiate annual Tribal harvests.
Annual negotiations are guided by a court order that sets the general boundaries of any agreement. We must assure the annual harvest by the Tribes and anglers doesn’t exceed any lake’s ability to produce fish.
For 15 years, the State has had a special agreement with the Lac du Flambeau Band of Chippewa Indians to provide funding for their hatchery, to honor their tribal licenses, and to allow them to sell state licenses and keep the revenue. In return, the Tribe has agreed to keep bag limits at three on lakes they spear.
Over the last several years, the DNR has worked with Tribes to liberalize hunting and gathering court orders consistent with changing regulations and conservation considerations. The State has done that when it makes sense and when the science supports a change -- like allowing the Tribes to regulate their gathering rights from our abundant state forests or truing up Tribal turkey rules to sport hunter rules as the turkey range has extended north.
It is important to stress that I have great respect for the Lac du Flambeau and Chairman Tom Maulson. I consider him a friend. In fact, I have enjoyed working with all of the Tribes in Wisconsin, and remain committed to these important government-to-government relationships.
This year, two days before their annual harvest declaration was due, the Lac du Flambeau brought new issues to the negotiation table. They wanted to reopen the 30-year-old court order to allow some leeway in taking larger fish. They needed more fish. They wanted to harvest additional lakes at a two walleye per day bag limit for sport anglers and proposed harvesting some lakes as a pilot at rates higher than current population safeguards allow.
We explained that was outside our authority. We don’t have the data or science to assure that such changes are in the best interests of the fishery. I suggested that the tribe use an approach that was very similar to last year's.
After repeated attempts to contact the Lac du Flambeau tribal leadership went unanswered, it appears they are closing the door on years of 3-bag agreements that have benefitted Tribal and non-tribal interests. Sport anglers may see many more lakes this year at a 2-bag. The economic boost to tourism that benefitted all in the Northwoods – including Lac du Flambeau and its conference facility and casino – may be impacted.
It's truly unfortunate we have come to this impasse, but it is my responsibility to put the state's fishery first.
The appearance of a negotiation tactic of surprise is very troubling to me. I worry that it places the trust between our organizations at risk. I respect the government to government nature of our relationship. I have supported Tribal consultation in words and actions, but it is a two-way street. Issues such as this should be addressed with all the bands affected without deadline pressure.
Decisions on our shared natural resources should be made in a scientific, thoughtful and legal process. DNR has tools under the court order that I intend to use to send the strongest possible message that a healthy walleye fishery is important to the State of Wisconsin.
I will earnestly seek to continue talking with the Lac du Flambeau. We have been able to find common ground on many issues, and we all have an interest in maintaining a cooperative relationship. We must keep the needs of the state and the Tribe openly on the table, as is our responsibility to our citizens and generations to come.
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