By Shawn Perich
Sometime in the 1990s, I don’t recall the year, then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt made an appearance in the Lake Superior port town of Bayfield, Wisconsin, to celebrate the recovery of native lake trout. Mr. Babbitt spent a couple of hours on a charter boat and caught a lake trout, as did others in the media entourage accompanying him.
At the time, a wild, self-sustaining population of lake trout was thriving around the Apostle Islands, where stocking and conservative harvest management of the species allowed it to recover from the twin assaults of depredation by invasive sea lampreys and overharvest by commercial netters. The future looked bright for Superior’s primary predator.
Flash forward a couple of decades to today. Last week, the Wisconsin DNR issued an emergency rule reducing the sport bag limit for lake trout from three to two. One lake trout must be from 20 to 25 inches in length. The other lake trout must be at least 35 inches in length. Catching a 35-inch lake trout is far from an everyday occurrence, so the bag limit is effectively one fish.
A story published in the Duluth News-Tribune Dec. 14, says the Wisconsin DNR reports lake trout have declined in Management Zone 2, which includes the Apostle Islands, by nearly two thirds during the past 10 years. There were an estimated 600,000 lake trout in the zone then and just over 200,000 now.
Since their recovery, lake trout have been considered the bread-and-butter fish for Lake Superior sport anglers. Sure, you may catch more Pacific salmon or other species at some times of year, but day in and day out, lake trout make up the bulk of the sport harvest.
Although anglers and their families and friends eat lots of lake trout, their collective appetite has little to do with the decline of the lake trout population. Terry Margenau, Lake Superior fisheries manager for the Wisconsin DNR, told the Duluth News Tribune that “a large proportion of the mortality is the result of commercial fishing.”
The annual harvest quota for Superior’s lake trout is split three ways between sport anglers, state commercial netters and tribal commercial netters. While the harvest originally was split 50-50 between the state and tribes, adjustments in the allocations during the past 10 years have given the tribes about three quarters of the annual harvest. During this decade, Zone 2’s lake trout have precipitously declined.
My intent here is not to point fingers at any specific interest or the management scheme and the politics behind it, because in one form or another, that always exists. I can only say how dumb are we? It took over 30 years and millions of dollars to restore Superior’s lake trout after they crashed in the late 1950s. Overharvest has returned the population to the brink of crash in even less time than that. What sort of Stewarts of the Earth are we?
I’m not sure the answer to that question is fit for print.
A few hundred miles away, in southwestern Minnesota, a group of concerned citizens, including the Governor, convened a first ever pheasant summit. What has happened to Minnesota’s pheasants during the last 10 years mirrors what happened to Apostle Islands lake trout, although for different reasons.
Minnesota’s pheasant flock, ravaged by ditch-to-ditch farming policies in the 1970s, recovered when the federal Farm Bill created the Conservation Reserve Program in 1985. By paying farmers to plant grass instead of crops, reducing the likelihood of overproduction, farm policy created millions of acres of grassland habitat, resulting in a population boom for pheasants and other wildlife. For 20 years, hunters enjoyed an extraordinary abundance of farmland game, such as pheasants and white-tailed deer.
In the past decade, the federal ethanol subsidy has increased the demand for corn, leading farmers to give up CRP leases in favor of more lucrative corn crops. Less grass means fewer pheasants–far fewer. The once burgeoning pheasant hunting economy has dwindled as hunters find few birds and, more importantly, fewer places to hunt.
I didn’t go to the summit, but reports indicate it was well attended by people who care about pheasants and, more importantly, maintaining some semblance of a natural landscape in one of the most intensively farmed areas on Earth. Notably, even though the Governor was there, the summit was attended by only one state legislator. Perhaps state legislators don’t choose to be included in the group of people who care. That’s a problem, because we have to rely upon state legislators–or our federal congressional delegation–to do the heavy lifting to protect and enhance fish and wildlife populations. I just don’t have a lot of faith that today’s politicians are capable of doing the right thing when it comes to conservation.
One report from the pheasant summit was particularly telling. The top recommendation from those attending the summit was a call for enforcement of the existing rules calling for 16.5- to 50-foot buffer strips along waterways. In an interview with Dave Orrick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dept. of Agriculture Commissioner Dave Fredrickson said that instead of enforcing the buffer strip law—which is intended to prevent farmland runoff from polluting our waterways—that the Legislature ought to repeal it.
Elsewhere in the interview, Fredrickson referred to ecological harm caused by agricultural pesticides as “the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” then went on to say he didn’t know if there was good science regarding the issue. Then he casually mentioned that some of the manure spread in fields this winter was likely to run into our waterways, but apparently that’s Ok by him. He also didn’t think the state should enforce rules to prevent mowing in roadside right-of-ways, which are often the only natural habitat available in intensively farmed areas.
Maybe Commissioner Fredrickson has drunk a little too much of that dirty water, but if you are looking for someone who personifies Minnesota’s largest and most persistent water pollution problems, he seems to be the guy. As a taxpayer, I’m troubled that I have to pay his salary. As a voter, I’m even more troubled that all of those state lawmakers who didn’t attend the Pheasant Summit are more likely to listen to him than anyone else who was there. Why? Because Fredrickson knows he doesn’t have to play ball with conservationists. In prairie politics, Big Ag always wins.