Annual public hearings to consider natural resource management and conservation issues in Wisconsin will feature several St. Croix River topics this year. In fact, three of the 10 fisheries management questions are specific to the St. Croix, noting that fishing regulations on the lower St. Croix have not changed much since the 1940s and 1950s.
“The St. Croix River is a fertile river that contains a highly diverse and productive fishery despite increasing habitat alterations, pollution inputs, increasing urbanization and high fishing pressure,” the questions say.
The Wisconsin Conservation Congress is a special advisory body to the Department of Natural Resources. Before 2020, the Congress included annual meetings in all of Wisconsin’s counties. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the events have moved online.
“With the pandemic, this has been a challenging couple years for everyone around the state and the country, and we’ve witnessed just how important it is for everyone to have access to our natural resources,” said Tony Blattler, chair of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress. “We are excited to provide an opportunity for citizens to weigh in on these different management issues. I hope that everyone who has an interest in the issues being discussed will utilize the online option to provide their input.”
During the spring hearings, participants are asked to vote on dozens of questions about resource management proposals. It can include changing fish possession limits or angling seasons, new hunting regulations, and many other subjects.
This year, the Congress will allow online voting from April 11 at 7 p.m. and for the following 72 hours. Results will then be posted as soon as possible. Wisconsin residents can also submit a resolution until midnight March 11 that will be seen by other residents of their county when filling out the survey.
There are a total of 63 statewide questions this year, including 16 for fish and wildlife management, two for the Natural Resources Board, and 45 for the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.
St. Croix River questions
While the St. Croix’s fish have held up well despite challenges, the agency notes that changes in management may be necessary in the future to handle the increased fishing pressure, water quality concerns, vegetation changes, and invasive species, such as bighead and silver carp.
The document also notably recognizes that there is more to managing fisheries than measuring angler success. It notes the unique relationship between the St. Croix’s world-class mussel population and its fish, and the need to manage them in tandem.
“In addition to the diverse fishery, the river also boasts one of the most diverse native mussel communities in the region which are heavily linked to the fish community present. Different fish species serve as the host for specific mussel species, which cannot complete their life cycle without a healthy fish population. Therefore, harvest rates of the fish populations must also be a consideration when evaluating the impacts to the native mussel communities.”
Key questions for the St. Croix include:
#8: Would you support the Wisconsin DNR working with the Minnesota DNR to establish game fish regulations and a continuous season for the St. Croix River from Taylors Falls downstream to Prescott that are consistent with those of the Mississippi River?
This proposal would create a year-round open fishing season for all game fish (largemouth and smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleye, and sauger) on the lower river, same as the Mississippi River. It would be a change from the current season of May through the following March each year, simplifying slightly different seasons currently in effect.
The work would also look at threats to fish in the lower St. Croix and ensure management keeps abreast of any changes to the population.
“The review of existing regulations is an opportunity to be proactive and potentially make adjustments that will protect the quality of the fishery and the fishing opportunities that currently exist,” the background information says.
#9: Do you support the Wisconsin DNR establishing separate bag limits for each catfish species in the St. Croix River from Taylors Falls downstream to Prescott concurrently with Minnesota?
Flathead and channel catfish are not only popular game fish on the St. Croix, they’re also a critical part of the river’s healthy ecosystem. The proposal would separate their management so limits could better reflect their status and sensitivity to harvest.
“Flathead Catfish commonly reach a weight of over 50 pounds in the St. Croix River, which is by far the largest of any gamefish species in the river other than Lake Sturgeon. Flathead Catfish are also a top-level predator that could aid in controlling invasive carp. Channel catfish are the host species for the federally endangered Winged Mapleleaf Mussel which is currently only found in 5 rivers across the United States with the St. Croix being one of them. Flathead Catfish are longer lived, reach larger sizes and generally less fecund and prolific compared to Channel Catfish. Habitat requirement also differ for each species throughout the year as well as preferred food sources.”
#10: Do you favor establishing the fish refuge season above the State Highway 8 bridge to the St. Croix Falls dam from March 1 to June 1 in the St. Croix River, Polk County concurrently with Minnesota?
This change would prohibit fishing during the walleye spawning season on the 0.75-mile stretch of river below the St. Croix Falls hydroelectric dam and the Highway 8 bridge.
“Fisheries data has documented walleye migrating back downstream post-spawn into mid-May, therefore an end date of June 1st will protect the majority of fish as they migrate back downstream following spawning. This refuge would begin implementation simultaneously with the proposed continuous open season for gamefish. This refuge would apply to all species in order to enhance enforcement of the regulation and protect species including Walleye, Sauger, Northern Pike, Muskellunge and Lake Sturgeon during the critical spawning period for these species. The majority of these species migrate upstream for spawning purposes in the spring and are forced to congregate below the dam.”
Muskies and more
Additionally, questions for the DNR include eliminating the north and south muskellunge fishing zones. While this would not affect the St. Croix’s main stem because it’s a border water, it would expand the season on Wisconsin tributaries like the Namekagon to match the southern zone. Ultimately, this would mean moving the opening date to the first Saturday in May from its current schedule of Memorial Day weekend.
Another proposal would consider cutting the statewide walleye bag limit from five to three, again excluding border waters like the St. Croix, but including its tributaries and watershed.
Two other questions ask for input about expanding sturgeon fishing. One would create a catch-and-release season in Wisconsin on waters where harvest already occurs, and another would look at creating a catch-and-release season on other lakes and rivers.
The questions in the Wisconsin Conservation Congress section range from deer hunting to clean water. Here are several relevant to the St. Croix River:
- Would you support additional testing for PFAS levels in drinking water across Wisconsin?
- Would you support the DNR continuing to advocate for strong PFAS protections and clean-up
to ensure that everyone has access to clean drinking water and safe consumption of fish?
- Support wolf population goal of 350 or less wolves?
- Do you favor the DNR and the NRB working with the Legislature to create a registration system and fee for canoes and kayaks?
- Do you favor requiring contact information for the owner placed on of canoes and kayaks with no fee associated (similar to the requirements for treestands, traps, and ice shacks)?
- Should the Conservation Congress work with the Department and the Legislature to adopt Wisconsin Constitutional Amendment to allow boating registration fees to be used for boating access and invasive species control in addition to boating safety?
Questions for the Natural Resources Board all concern the threat of Chronic Wasting Disease to Wisconsin’s deer population.
All the questions can be previewed here. The link to answer the conservation questions will go live at 7 p.m. on April 11 and remain open until the same time April 14.
The Spring Hearings usually also offer the chance to elect delegates from each county to the Conservation Congress, but voting has been suspended since the beginning of the pandemic. This year, individuals interested in filling a vacant seat can apply by March 11.