MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Wisconsin’s six Chippewa tribes say they’re looking to spear a record number of walleyes across the northern part of the state this spring, a goal that could lead to tighter bag limits on non-tribal anglers and rekindle tensions with tourism-minded lawmakers.
The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees the Chippewa’s off-reservation rights, forwarded the tribes’ 2014 goals to The Associated Press on Wednesday. The goals call for taking a record 63,488 walleyes, breaking the old record of 59,659 set in 2010.
Commission spokeswoman Susan Erickson said in an email that the tribes need the fish to feed their families as well as supply food for the elderly, community feasts and ceremonies.
“It is a figure that gives the tribes the opportunity to meet their needs,” she said. “There is nothing sensational or drastic here.”
Treaties the Chippewa signed with the federal government in the 1800s granted the bands the right to hunt and fish in millions of northern Wisconsin acres the tribes handed over to the government. The tribes have traditionally started spearing as soon as winter ice melts off northern lakes and continue until spawning ends in May. Traditionally they’ve taken only about half of their quota each year.
The Department of Natural Resources tries to conserve the overall walleye population by shrinking non-tribal anglers’ bag limits. The entire affair is still a sore sport with non-tribal anglers, who staged ugly racial protests at boat landings in the 1980s and early 1990s that saw fake American Indian heads on pikes, racial taunts and rock-throwing.
Tensions began to bubble up again last spring after the Chippewa, upset with Republican lawmakers for establishing a new wolf hunt and relaxing regulations to help jump-start a huge iron mine near the Bad River band’s reservation, raised their 2013 goal to 59,399, an increase of 5,342 fish from the previous year. The DNR reacted by imposing one-fish bag limits on nearly 200 lakes and a two-fish limits on more than 300 other lakes for non-tribal anglers.
Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, chairman of the Assembly’s tourism committee, was so incensed he threatened to rescind a $250,000 grant for the Lac du Flambeau; the Lac Courte Oreilles then-chairman used the annual State of the Tribes speech in Madison to accuse the DNR of spreading propaganda that the bag limits were the only thing standing between walleyes and extinction. Things finally cooled off after the Chippewa took only 28,400 fish and the DNR raised bag limits accordingly.
This year the tribes want to take 5,089 more fish than in 2013, setting up another potentially bitter clash.
The DNR hasn’t released its bag limits yet, but the state Natural Resources Board on Wednesday authorized the agency to draft new regulations to help compensate for the kill.
The DNR has no power to regulate the Chippewa’s kills, but it could impose size limits and shorten the season for non-tribal anglers. The agency hasn’t proposed any changes yet and it’s unclear if it will; the board gave the DNR the same authorization last year, but agency officials ultimately did nothing with it.
DNR Fisheries Bureau Director Mike Staggs said Wednesday the new declaration looks more dramatic than it really is. The quota includes goals for all the lakes any members might visit, inflating the overall total.
“Experience has shown when it’s all said and done (the actual spearfishing harvest) is much, much lower (than the overall goal),” he said.
Kaufert didn’t immediately return a message left at his state Capitol office.