Michigan DNR fisheries division doing a lot with relatively little

| February 17, 2017 | 0 Comments

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Professional walleye angler Mike Gofron lands a pike from Lake Gogebic.
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Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources fisheries division has some challenges — and opportunities — coming up this year, all of which will be subjected to intense scrutiny.
Understanding the division’s budget can only help.
They won’t admit it, but they – like most of our natural resources — are desperately underfunded. Though Michigan is home to the largest fresh water fishery in the nation, it has the lowest financial resources per water acre. According to Michigan’s DNR fisheries chief Jim Dexter, the state has 14 biologists and 24 technicians dedicated to field management, with a total of 40 biologists and 50 techs in the entire division.
That doesn’t even amount to one per county. Each biologist is responsible for managing around 900,000 acres of inland waterways, not including the Great Lakes and rivers. Field biologists find out what’s happening on the landscape. They make recommendations for fishing regulations, talk to anglers and evaluate management of waters.
I asked Dexter how this compares with other states, and he admitted that Michigan’s “fisheries biologists do manage more acres of fresh water than any other agency in the nation, per staff member. If you’re a biologist in Indiana, you may be responsible for 10,000 acres. Ours are more likely responsible for close to a million.”
Most of the DNR budget comes from fishing and hunting license fees – they get swept into one pot and distributed. A portion comes from a federal excise tax on every bow, bullet, rod, reel and lure. I spent two weeks looking at their budget as part of a gubernatorial committee on state parks and outdoor recreation areas. I seem to recall we concluded that it’s possible the DNR runs on fairy dust and dreams.
“Most people think it comes from state taxes,” Dexter said. “In reality, we rarely get money from the general fund. I think we got around $300,000 last year, and it was dedicated to things like managing cormorants. For fisheries division, it’s around $20 million from license fees and $10 million from excise taxes. That $300,000 runs the fisheries division for around two days.”
Those monies are broken into three primary areas. Operating hatcheries represents about a third of it, according to Dexter. A third goes into research – Great Lakes and inland. The other third goes to field management.
Fishing and hunting licenses are more important than people realize, says Dexter. The license purchases benefit everyone.
“If you live in a carp-infested mudhole, it’s not as attractive or good for property values as a fishery with fresh, healthy water, regardless of whether you personally fish or not,” Dexter said. “Local sport fishing has invigorated the shoreline communities since the 1950s. Port areas revitalized because of the recreational fishery. If the fishery was still like it was in the 1950s, we wouldn’t have the home values in the port communities today.”
Every year, the DNR surveys around 100 lakes. Usually, they take on one very large lake, but this year, they will take on two: Hubbard and Gogebic.
“It takes virtually our entire staff a number of weeks to survey a lake over 10,000 acres in size,” Dexter said. “We can only make that investment on a lake like that once every 20 or 30 years. We hope to be able to collaborate with the community and pull in volunteers. We’ll need 30-35 people.
“We may do a smaller lake under very active management every 3-4 years. It takes work to give the benefit you’re trying to achieve. We don’t want to institute a management program and walk away. We’re not going to stock $200,000 worth of fish without doing creel surveys, netting, chemical analysis and watershed reports.”
2017 will bring another first: the DNR is doing a joint creel survey of the St. Mary’s River with Canada.
And maybe, just maybe, another rather miraculous first: The fisheries department will attempt to bring back grayling in our waters. An extinct, cherished fish species, grayling was extinct by the time Earnest Hemingway came to Michigan in the 1920s. Previous attempts have failed, but Dexter says this time, it just might work.
Who knows? Anglers are dreamers, and Dexter is an angler.

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That was quick: Michigan’s sturgeon season lasts about an hour

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