Guest Editorial for the Sawyer County Record
Oct 12th, 2005 by OutdoorsFIRST
Modified Nov 21st, 2018 at 3:26 PM
Dave NeuswangerFisheries Team Leader, Upper Chippewa BasinWisconsin DNR, HaywardOctober 7, 2005It is challenging to incorporate public input into fishery management plans in an appropriate manner. In Wisconsin, we have a culture that has allowed and even encouraged anglers to greatly influence management strategies such as fish length limits, bag limits, stockings, and habitat projects. Often such influence is wielded by only a handful of people who have not been trained professionally in the management of fishery resources. Even more troubling, strategies usually are selected before the priorities and desired outcomes of a majority of stakeholders have been identified (for example, how many fish of what size are possible and desired in a particular lake).As the old saying goes, If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there. Asking or allowing anglers to direct strategies to achieve undefined results seems to put us on one of those many paths quite frequently. We can do better.Since spring of 2004, DNR fishery managers in my six-county Upper Chippewa Basin have held 16 weekend sessions with a total of 448 civic-minded people in order to develop shared visions (desired outcomes) for 32 lakes totaling 98,543 acres. This represents 59% of all publicly accessible lake acreage in the basin.DNR biologists open these four-hour visioning sessions with a presentation about the history of each fishery. They address participant questions regarding the potential of each lake or chain of lakes to produce various types of fishing. After this status review, we facilitate a process to determine the relative importance of each fish species, followed by an exercise that allows us to understand the extent to which folks are interested in numbers versus size, and catch-and-release versus harvest, for each of the most important species.Participant preference information is then used to craft realistic goals and objectives (desired numbers and sizes of fish) for the most important species in each system. Biologists help by suggesting measurable objectives consistent with stakeholder-influenced goals. To my surprise, we have had virtually unanimous agreement on goals and objectives. Fishery management strategies (length limits, bag limits, stockings, and habitat projects) are not discussed. Participants agree that professional biologists should choose such strategies provided they are consistent with stakeholder-influenced goals.A handful of non-participants seem to feel threatened by this new approach. These are the proverbial squeaking wheels who have developed the expectation that if they persistently make strident demands, DNR will yield to the pressure and implement their pet strategies. Often this has been done without regard for the impact of such strategies on the silent majority of stakeholders who may not share the priorities and preferences of a few activists. Often it is done based upon flawed assumptions and misunderstandings of fishery science by activists who presume to know more than the professionals. Almost always it is done without a shared vision that clearly identifies desired outcomes. My fishery management team seeks to reform business-as-usual in the Upper Chippewa Basin. We relish the opportunity to serve you based upon the priorities and desired outcomes of a representative majority, not the misguided pressure tactics of select individuals and special interest groups.We learned a lot during our 2004-2005 visioning sessions. In the Hayward area, sessions were conducted for Nelson Lake, Lac Courte Oreilles, Grindstone Lake, Round Lake, and the Chippewa Flowage. Our lake association cosponsors were gracious hosts, and all participants were polite, open-minded, and extremely helpful. The fishery management plan for Nelson Lake has been completed. Implementation has begun. Stakeholders helped develop the goals and objectives, professional biologists developed the strategies, and everyone is pitching in to implement them, including the Nelson Lake Association, Walleyes for Northwest Wisconsin, and the Red Cliff Tribe. Other fishery management plans for Sawyer County lakes are currently in preparation. Our goal is to complete them by June 30, 2006. If all goes well, we will schedule additional lake fishery visioning sessions next summer.We have learned a lot about angler priorities and preferences in the six-county Upper Chippewa Basin. Results of our visioning sessions have reaffirmed that walleye are Number One. On a scale of zero to 100% (where all 448 participants would have rated a species to be of the highest importance), the relative importance index for walleye was a very high 79%. Thats no surprise. But some folks may be surprised to learn that black crappie were a close second with a relative importance index of 75%. Bluegill scored third at 70%, followed by yellow perch at 57%.These three panfish species (crappie, bluegill, and perch) were of relatively high importance to visioning session participants in the Upper Chippewa Basin, yet DNR fishery management programs traditionally have placed walleye, muskellunge, and trout at the top of the priority list. Obviously walleye should remain our top priority. But these local visioning session results, in addition to past statewide surveys, suggest that we should spend a greater proportion of our time and money trying to create and sustain good fishing for panfish in area lakes. We plan to do just that in the Upper Chippewa Basin, where some of the most progressive methods for managing panfish were being piloted by basin biologists when I moved here from Missouri in 2002.Muskellunge ranked fifth in sport fishing interest among our 448 visioning session participants, with a relative importance index of 50%. Smallmouth bass (47%) were almost as important as muskellunge. Northern pike (41%) and largemouth bass (33%) were the only other species of significant sport fishing interest to our participants, but even they were locally important on certain waters.Basin-wide visioning session results may be interesting, but we must be careful not to over-generalize. Any one of the top eight species in this basin may be among the top three on a particular lake. For example, muskellunge are of prime importance at Lac Courte Oreilles, so we have plans to transfer overabundant muskies from Butternut Lake near Park Falls to LCO in order to bolster the musky fishery there and shift dominance away from northern pike. (Implementation is pending a determination that the fish are genetically compatible.) At Nelson Lake, where walleye were the primary concern, stakeholders felt northern pike were important enough to develop objectives to produce low numbers of trophy-size pike. Habitat conditions and angling traditions often dictate what is most important on individual waters. For example, largemouth bass will be the featured species at Miller Dam Flowage in Taylor County, where walleye and musky spawning habitat is practically nonexistent. We will take all these factors into account, in addition to LCO tribal interests, as we complete our fishery management plans for Sawyer County lakes.It is remarkable and a bit disappointing to see the occasional Letter to the Editor alleging that local DNR fish managers are arrogant, unenlightened, and lacking in plans. Perhaps I need to do a better job communicating our plans. But I will not engage in a point-counterpoint debate with amateur researchers who routinely distort the truth in pursuit of their own misguided agenda. Such people are threatened by our initiative to provide a fair opportunity for a broad spectrum of fishery stakeholders to provide input at an appropriate stage in the planning process. Exemplifying this problem are those advocating that DNR stock an exotic strain of muskellunge from Minnesota into the Upper Chippewa Basin. These activists have made faulty assumptions and are willing to ignore unacceptable risks in pursuit of their short-sighted agenda. They would have DNR devote its limited resources to importing this exotic strain of fish and evaluating the results. But we have learned our lessons about importing exotics. We also have higher priorities for the use of our time. We have walleye populations to improve. We have three important species of panfish that need much more attention than they have received in the past. There are things we can and will do to improve our native muskellunge stocks in order to achieve musky population objectives developed by hundreds of basin stakeholders. But we cannot act on these high priorities if we spend our limited time and dollars pursuing a misguided strategy that no professional fishery scientist in North America will publicly endorse. For details on this complex issue, read my comments and those of leaders in the musky fishing community on the research forum at www.muskiefirst.com.I thank the many supportive people in this community who have welcomed me and encouraged our fishery managers to continue this new way of doing business. My commitment to you is that we will not yield to the unfair pressure tactics of individual activists or special interest groups. As a community of concerned anglers, we will make fishing better than ever in an area where few things matter more to our economy and our quality of life.