Court sides with DNR in battle over Mille Lacs walleye limits

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The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources won a round in court Tuesday against resort owners on Lake Mille Lacs who claimed the agency didn't have the authority to limit the annual walleye catch on the lake.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals said the strict fishing rules imposed by the DNR last spring to address a declining walleye population did not violate the state constitution, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports.

The group Save Mille Lacs Sportfishing, made up of resorts and property owners around Mille Lacs, sued the DNR last year after the agency put in place strict limits and a ban on night fishing to revive Mille Lacs’ plummeting walleye numbers, which the DNR says have reached their lowest level in 40 years.

They said the stricter rules kept anglers away from Mille Lacs and thereby hurt their businesses. The night fishing ban was lifted partway through the season, but the other limits remained in place.

The suit argued a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998 requires the DNR to take Minnesota’s fishing heritage into consideration in setting regulations.

Minnesota���s Preserve Hunting and Fishing Heritage Amendment reads in part:

“…hunting and fishing and the taking of game and fish are a valued part of our heritage that shall be forever preserved for the people and shall be managed by law and regulation for the public good.”

The appeals court ruled that even though the DNR didn't specifically refer to the amendment in its Mille Lacs rules, it was carrying out the spirit of the amendment in making the rules.

"The Preservation Provision, in conjunction with other authority, establishes that the state maintains 'control over when, how, and the extent to which fish can be taken,' provided that the state does not exercise its authority 'arbitrarily,'" the judges decided. (Read the complete ruling here)

Erick Kaardal, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press he's disappointed with the ruling.

"My clients are now ready to go to the state legislature to enact a statute that will require the DNR to follow the law when adopting any rule–specifically Minnesota’s Hunting and Fishing Preservation Constitutional Amendment," he said.

In October, the DNR said it was encouraged by the results of its annual Mille Lacs walleye survey, which showed that more yearling walleye survived than in previous years.

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