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New DNR plan aims to get Mille Lacs back on track

January 27, 2014

by Chris Schultz

From the DNR

Unprecedented change is occurring at Mille Lacs Lake and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is taking unprecedented actions to address it.

The agency will convene a blue-ribbon panel of national fisheries experts to review past and current management practices as part of a new effort to increase the legendary lake’s walleye population as quickly as possible with minimal impact to the local community.

“We will have nationally recognized fisheries experts review our work and offer recommendations,” said Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief. “We want the lake back on track. This is one strategy to do that.”

Panel members are: Drs. Jim Bence and Travis Brenden, Quantitative Fisheries Center at Michigan State University; Dr. Paul Venturelli, University of Minnesota; Dr. Nigel Lester, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the University of Toronto; and Dr. Lars Rudstam, Cornell University and Oneida Lake Field Station.

Mille Lacs, a 132,000-acre lake in central Minnesota, is long-favored by anglers due to its abundant walleye population.

However, the walleye population has been in decline for a number of years. Pereira said a key problem is the vast majority of walleye that hatch do not survive to their second autumn in the lake.

He said that while the lake continues to have adequate walleye spawning stock and more than enough egg production and fry to repopulate the lake, the lake hasn’t produced a strong year-class of walleye since 2008.

To further help solve the problem, Pereira said the agency intends to contract with a nationally recognized fisheries expert to do an intensive review of the state’s fish tagging and fishing population estimates.

These reviews, combined with a new predator diet study to determine impacts on small walleye survival and fishing regulations that aim to protect young walleye, are all part of a systematic approach to improve walleye fishing.

The diet study also includes winter sampling of predator fish under the ice.

The DNR acknowledges that state and tribal fisheries management has played a role in the decline but long-term solutions will involve better understanding an evolving system that now has clearer water, a variety of unwanted aquatic invasive species, growing walleye predator populations and decreasing prey populations, such as perch and tullibee.

Pereira said the problem of promising walleye year classes that disappear year after year is linked to “system change.” Change includes:

• Increased water clarity:

Water clarity has nearly doubled since the mid-1980s.

Improvement began about 25 years after the implementation of the federal Clean Water Act in the early 1970s and has trended sharply upward since zebra mussels were discovered in the lake in 2006.

Improved water clarity has been linked to movement of young of the year walleye off-shore at smaller sizes, and may also have benefited sight-feeding fish that prey on walleye and perch.

• Increased walleye predator populations:

Northern pike and smallmouth bass populations have risen significantly since the early 1990s.

In 2013, the northern pike population increased to the highest level ever observed.

The 2013 smallmouth bass population was the second-highest ever recorded.

Smallmouth bass populations have been on the increase throughout Minnesota and Canada.

• Multiple aquatic invasive species:

Once devoid of aquatic invasive species, Mille Lacs now contains zebra mussels, spiny water fleas, and Eurasian watermilfoil.

While it’s unknown exactly what implications these infestations are having, it’s suspected the increase in milfoil is providing more ambush cover for northern pike.

Also, water-filtering mussels are contributing to water clarity that allow more aquatic vegetation to grow at deeper depths and in more dense stands.

• Changing zooplankton community:

First detected in 2009, spiny water flea numbers have fluctuated but show no signs of declining.

Spiny water fleas may be having a negative impact on the native zooplankton community by directly competing with small fish for food and altering the historic aquatic food chain.

• Long-term changes in key forage species:

The most prominent change is a decline in tullibee, likely the result of warmer water temperatures.

A decline in tullibee is likely negatively affecting walleye in Mille Lacs, especially larger walleye, as walleye grow significantly faster when they are able to feed on this species because it is higher in calories than other prey species, including yellow perch.

“Clearly, Mille Lacs is undergoing system change,” Pereira said. “As we work to rebuild the walleye population these factors will influence management decisions.”

Pereira said the DNR is also exploring new and innovative ways to engage citizen input on future management decisions and will help support a new tourism marketing initiative that is being formed by the local community and Explore Minnesota Tourism.

Waverly Gun Club firearm safety registration Mon., Feb. 3

The Waverly Gun Club is proud to offer the Minnesota Firearm Safety training class.

The firearm safety class is for anyone at least 11 years old by January 1, 2014.

Students who complete all the requirements receive a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Firearm Safety Certificate.

Registration for this class is Monday Feb. 4 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Waverly Gun Club.

For minors a parent or guardian must attend registration. Proof of birth date is required.

The local fee is $7 and an additional $7.50 DNR fee will be paid directly to the DNR online.

Class begins Monday Feb. 10 at 6:30 p.m. and will continue for eight weeks.

For more information or questions, contact Tracey at (612) 910-2198.

Howard Lake Fishing Derby Sat., Feb. 8

The Howard Lake Sportsmen’s Club 68th annual Fishing Derby is Saturday, Feb. 8, from 1-3 p.m., on Howard Lake.

The day’s events will include a prize for the biggest fish, ice chiseling and power auger comtests, and a raffle to win a 6-by-12 Ice Castle Fish House.

Other raffle prizes include a portable fish house, and framed prints.

Raffle tickets are available ahead of time at Joe’s Sports Shop and the Country Store in Howard Lake, and also from any member of the Howard Lake Sportsmen’s Club. Raffle tickets will be sold the day of the event.

A lunch wagon will be on site throughout the event.

Legacy Amendment helps clean up Crow River in St. Michael
From the DNR

An innovative project funded partially by a sales tax that voters approved five years ago is helping prevent part of St. Michael from being washed away by the Crow River, and improving downstream water quality in the process.

In recent years, the river banks at a bend in the Crow River on the east side of St. Michael have slowly been eroding, sending tons of soil down the river and on into the Mississippi – and the erosion was worsening, threatening to wipe out a city stormwater pond.

The traditional approach to the problem would entail armoring the riverbank with massive amounts of large rocks or rip-rap, an approach that’s biologically sterile and would cost millions of dollars – a high price tag for cash-strapped local units of government.

That’s when staff with the Crow River Organization of Water (CROW) contacted Nick Proulx, a DNR clean water specialist.

Proulx began looking into a much cheaper method of controlling stream bank erosion that had been used successfully on the Le Sueur River in southern Minnesota and elsewhere.

Toe-wood stream bank stabilization, as it’s called, involves burying logs, some with root wads still attached, along the outside bend of the river, some poking up from the stream channel.

Then they’re covered with soil and plantings of woody vegetation such as alder and willow, as well as grasses and sedges.

The approach tries to work with a river’s flow and forces, rather than locking it in place, Proulx explained.

It results in a more natural channel and creates floodplain, a stabilized stream bank, less erosion and sediment in the water, and better habitat for aquatic organisms.

“It’s a fairly new approach that’s gaining steam,” Proulx said. “We’re trying to demonstrate that this is a valid alternative to rip-rap, a valid approach to infrastructure protection at a much cheaper cost.”

And when Proulx said the toe-wood stabilization is “much cheaper,” that may be an understatement.

A similar stream bank stabilization project using rip-rap in Delano cost $2.4 million.

Price tag for the St. Michael toe-wood stabilization work: $183,000 – less than one-tenth of the traditional approach.

About $64,000 of that came from a Clean Water Legacy grant awarded to the Wright County Soil and Water Conservation District; the grant was funded by a sales tax increase approved by voters five years ago last November.

The rest was paid for by CROW and the city of St. Michael. Proulx, who helped design the project and oversaw its construction, also is paid with Clean Water Legacy funds.

“Imagine 30 dump trucks backing up to the Crow River and dumping a load of dirt into it each year,” Proulx said. “That’s how much erosion was going on before this project. That’s a pretty significant reduction in pollution, and a big improvement in water quality.”

CO weekly report
From the DNR

• CO Brian Mies (Annandale) checked anglers.
CO Mies also checked coyote hunters in Wright County.
CO Mies gave a law talk at the Watkins Snowmobile class.

• CO Rick Reller (Buffalo) checked anglers and snowmobilers this week.
Fishing in the area has been good this week.
Enforcement action was taken for angling with extra lines, litter and snowmobile violations.

• CO Mitch Sladek (Big Lake) worked fishermen and snowmobilers, and issued summonses and written warning for a number of violations.
He followed up on a TIP of a big game violation.
He assisted with a capture of a Bald Eagle in the Elk River area.

• CO Steve Walter (Waconia) worked the trout opener and checked anglers on special regulation lakes.
Snowmobile trails were patrolled all week.
Trails were in good condition but there were not very many snowmobilers on the trails.
Snowmobile trespass complaints and anglers littering on area lakes were investigated.

• CO Jen Mueller (Hutchinson) checked anglers and snowmobile riders during the week.
Angling license as well as drug related issues were found in area ice houses.
A burn of prohibited materials was investigated.
Mueller spoke at a snowmobile safety class in Litchfield, as well on the local radio station for snowmobile safety week.

• CO Brett Oberg (Hutchinson) reports working on a couple big game complaints.
Fishing enforcement was also worked with northern spearing going very well on an area lakes and a small rearing lake is still giving up a few nice walleye.
Time was also spent working recreational vehicle enforcement in the area.
Predator hunters were also checked.
Oberg also assisted another officer with an ongoing case.