Bill to stock Leech Lake with walleye slowed in Senate

ST. PAUL -- The Walker community wants to restore its fishing tourist economy by continuing to stock Leech Lake with walleye. But the Department of Natural Resources believes stocking should be put on hold to see if stocking has worked in Leech L...

ST. PAUL -- The Walker community wants to restore its fishing tourist economy by continuing to stock Leech Lake with walleye.

But the Department of Natural Resources believes stocking should be put on hold to see if stocking has worked in Leech Lake and if the fishery can sustain itself.

"For a long time there was a problem on Leech Lake with respect to the walleye population," Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, testified Tuesday before the Senate Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Committee.

"Cormorants, rusty crayfish and perhaps a number of factors that at this point are still unknown by the DNR caused a significant drop in the walleye population there, that caused the loss of over 30 businesses in this small community with the population of only about a 1,000 people," Olson testified.

Olson's bill would appropriate $35,000 from the state's general fund in fiscal 2009 to allow the DNR to stock Leech Lake with 25 million walleye fry in 2009 and with 25 million in 2010. But the DNR appears to have won its way, as the panel's omnibus bill moving out of the committee Wednesday includes no funding for Olson's bill.


Meanwhile, the House companion bill, authored by Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, has been laid over for possible inclusion in the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division omnibus spending bill.

"This is a community almost entirely dependent upon on tourism, and so with the Internet being what it is today, when your walleye fishing goes south, your businesses tend to go south with it," Olson said.

The Walker community worked hard with the DNR for at least five years to start a stocking program, she said, while ongoing efforts were trying to determine if the cormorants, the crayfish or whatever was affecting the walleye fishery.

"The DNR's position all through these years was that stocking would not be effective on Leech Lake," Olson said. "Finally, because of the level of public outcry over this issue and the effect it was having on the economy, a couple of years ago the DNR did decide to start stocking Leech Lake."

Handouts Olson provided the committee show that the DNR stocked Leech Lake with 7.56 million walleye fry in 2005, 22 million in 2006 and 7.47 million in 2007.

"If you go to Leech Lake today, you are able to catch walleye," she said.

The 2007 Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener was held on Leech Lake, with Gov. Tim Pawlenty proclaiming that "Leech Lake is back as a fishing Mecca. ... We want to send the message that this lake is ready to fish, and it's producing."

But now the DNR wants to find out what caused the fishery to collapse in the first place, and want to put off stocking for further study of the lake.


"In the meantime, until they figure out this issue, the community of Walker would like to have them continue to stock the lake, because they really can't afford to take chances with their economy to have a repeat of what happened before," the Bemidji Democrat said.

Stocking Leech Lake at 25 million fry a year would cost $62,500 a year, not $35,000, testified Ron Payer, natural resources program manager for the DNR's Fish and Wildlife Division. That would mean about $135,000 for two years, a cost of $2.50 per 1,000 fry.

"One of the reasons the agency is concerned with stocking at these levels is ... that we need to find out what's going on," Payer said. ":Leaving a year that we won't stock in 2009 ... will help us do that, and we're intending to engage in a long process with local and statewide stakeholders to develop a longer term plan for Leech Lake."

Payer said the DNR plans to stock Leech Lake this year with 20 million walleye fry.

"If it proves that stocking on Leech Lake is necessary, we will do that," he said. "But we feel very strongly that to have a year where we don't stock is pretty valuable."

The community disagrees, testified Dick Sternberg, a fish biologist from Deephaven, Minn., and a contributing editor to Outdoor Life.

"We had a blank year, pretty much, in 2007," he said. "It was a very light fry stocking. ... There was very little success in 2007."

Sternberg's report shows shoreline seining sampling of walleye in 2007 about half that of 2006 -- and about a fourth of the seining sampling average between 1983-99.


"There hasn't been much natural reproduction" the last two years, he added. "In effect, we've already gone through the non-stocking part of this, and it hasn't worked, and we're concerned about this."

Entered into the record was a letter from the Minnesota Chapter of the American Fisheries Society which opposes Olson's and Howes' bills, saying that "stocking needs to be a part of a comprehensive fisheries management program, not a means unto itself."

Also, "stocking should not be viewed as a politically expedient alternative to ecosystem restoration and harvest management," the society said.

Sternberg said he agreed with the society's concepts but that it "makes on giant leap I don't agree with, and that is that (the society says) we're dealing with a naturally reproducing lake" and stocking needs to be based on scientific analysis.

But Sternberg said that "we're not convinced it is a naturally reproducing lake, and the evidence I just pointed out pretty much shows that."

As a result, "we need to stock to make sure those fish are going to be in it," he said.

"Why are we doing it? Why are we even considering it?" asked Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, a panel member, noting that the DNR has determined it not necessary.

"We have a department we are basically saying is incompetent on this issue, and we should listen to them," Hann said. "I'm concerned about that."


Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, asked why the funds need to come from the general fund, and not the DNR's game and fish fund.

"The reason it's not coming out of the game and fish fund is (because of) the value judgment of the DNR that there didn't need to be any stocking on Leech Lake any longer," said Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids.

The bill was successfully amended to call for stocking of "up to" 25 million fry, recognizing what $35,000 would buy, and on a split verbal vote was tabled to be considered for possible inclusion in the omnibus spending bill from the committee.

Olson met with a contingent of Walker people after the hearing, asking them to consider matching funds to sweeten the offer of state money, but they indicated that the community can't afford even that.

Wednesday's omnibus bill from the panel did not include the funding.

Star Lake Program

The Leech Lake stocking bill was one of three Olson is carrying that were heard Tuesday by the panel.

One, a Star Lake Program to recognize Minnesota lakes that have applied and won distinction for lake management plans, was funded at $100,000 for fiscal year 2009 in the final committee omnibus bill, and placed under the jurisdiction of the Board of Soil and Water Resources.


Olson had asked for the funding as "seed money" to start up the program and gain public awareness and to provide an administrative employee to the board created by the bill to handle applications.

"In getting this organized, it's going to take a relatively small amount of seed money to set this up and move it forward," Olson testified. "Once that organization is in place, then I think the opportunity would be there to decide to request annual dues if lake associations chose to do this to support this effort."

The voluntary program would help keep Minnesota lakes clean and clear of invasive species from participating lake associations. Star Lake distinction would also allow state resources to help the association, she said.

"Putting these two partnerships together and giving them an incentive or carrot or recognition to lake associations who are willing to do this seems to me for the small investment to be money very well spent," Olson said.

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