- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wildlife officials are looking for more flexibility to preserve Wisconsin’s walleye population after the state’s Chippewa tribes dramatically increased their spearfishing harvest goals last year.

The tribes are expected to give the Department of Natural Resources their 2014 goals this weekend. The agency plans to ask its board next week for permission to draft new emergency rules to compensate for the kills beyond limiting bag limits for non-tribal fishermens.

DNR officials say they don’t know if they’ll write any rules or what they might contain - much depends on the Chippewa’s new goals, they say. However, their board request suggests reducing size limits and season length for non-tribal anglers. The request states more rule-writing authority would help the DNR counteract “regional, social and economic disruption” associated with spearfishing.

“It’s a contingency thing,” DNR Fisheries Bureau Director Mike Staggs said “We’re just looking ahead.”

Sue Erickson, a spokeswoman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees the Chippewa’s off-reservation treaty rights, declined to comment.

Tribal spearfishing has been a sore spot in the Wisconsin conservation world for decades.

Treaties the state’s six Chippewa tribes signed in the 1800s granted the bands the right to hunt and fish on millions of northern Wisconsin acres they ceded to the U.S. government. The tribes traditionally have started spearing as soon as the winter ice melts off northern lakes and continue until the spawning season ends, usually in May, and walleyes return to deeper water.

The practice sparked ugly racial protests at boat landings in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the tribes began to reassert their spearfishing rights, with non-tribal protesters holding fake American Indian heads on pikes, racial taunts and rock-throwing.

Tensions began to rise again last spring after the tribes dramatically increased their harvest goals by about 5,300 walleye to a near-record 59,399 fish.

The tribes said the goals reflected the need to feed themselves. But they came down as the Chippewa were fuming over the state’s new wolf hunt - the Chippewa consider the animal a brother - and a Republican bill relaxing regulations for a potential open-pit iron mine near the Bad River band’s reservation.

The tribes don’t always reach their kill goals, but the DNR still reduced non-tribal bag limits to one fish on 197 lakes, two fish on 331 lakes and three fish on seven lakes to protect the fishery. The DNR board also granted the agency permission to draft emergency rules to further compensate for the anticipated walleye loss, similar to the permission the agency is seeking this year.

Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, chairman of the state Assembly’s tourism committee, complained the tight bag limits would devastate tourism in northern Wisconsin. He was so incensed he threatened to pull a $250,000 grant for the Lac du Flambeau. Gordon Thayer, then-chairman of the Lac Courte Oreilles band, in turn ripped the DNR in his State of the Tribes speech, accusing the agency of spreading propaganda that the one-fish limit was all that stood between northern Wisconsin walleye and extinction.

A cold, late spring ultimately defused the situation. The Chippewa took only about 28,400 walleyes, far short of their quota. The DNR raised its bag limits, didn’t adopted any new regulations and Kaufert to back off his threat to withhold the grant.

The tribes are expected to give their 2014 quotas to the DNR on Saturday. The DNR board is set to consider the emergency authorization for new rules days later via conference call Wednesday.

Gov. Scott Walker already signed off on the request last month, making board approval the last step before the agency would have the green light.

Kaufert didn’t return a message left at his state Capitol office.

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