LAKE MILLE LACS - Full-time fisherman and former New Ulm resident Steve Fellegy is taking a second run at his legal battle to force a ruling on the controversy surrounding Minnesota tribal net-fishing rights.
The situation emerged from protest net fishing events conducted by the Ojibwe and Dakota tribes. Hundreds of tribal members fished days ahead of the state fishing opener using the heavily regulated net-fishing method. Protesters sought to get a ticket or citation from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Being cited as violators would give them something to challenge in court. Tribal members argue that the 1805 and 1855 U.S. government treaties with American Indian tribes in Minnesota give them the right to hunt and fish without regard for state regulations. Previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions allow culturally traditional methods of net and spear fishing in tribal territories.
Fellegy has been critical of the DNR and the Minnesota Attorney General's Office for only confiscating the nets and fish during the tribal protests instead of issuing citations. He says the DNR and attorney general were unwilling to bring the issue to court.
Fellegy staged a personal protest. He illegally harvested a fish ahead of season with the intention of getting a ticket, which he did receive in 2010. He spent the following year trying to challenge the ticket in Minnesota court. The lower courts ordered him to pay the ticket and declined to bring up the challenge. The effort ended when the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to review the case.
However, the seeds of Fellegy's second attempt were found in the Appeals Court's opinion on the case. The court argued the citation needed to have happened in the same county - Beltrami County- with tribal members not being likewise cited to meet unequal treatment legal requirements. Fellegy intends to net fish in the same location as the next anticipated tribal protest on May 14, 2013. He said he believes this new approach will force the legal issue.
Fellegy's potential court case could put Beltrami County and the state in a Catch-22 position. If Fellegy is charged, it could lead to a lengthy, complex legal battle on tribal rights. If he is not cited, it could open the door for non-tribal anglers to also participate in the net fishing ahead of the season opener.
"There is unequal rights being enforced [with tribal rights]. People are being treated differently under the law based on their skin color and ethnic origin," said Fellegy.
Fellegy said the consequence of the tribal net fishing not being addressed could spell disaster for fishing in related Minnesota lakes, including his home lake of Mille Lacs. He cited the DNR's gill-net survey of Lake Mille Lacs this year. The survey found walleye populations at a 40-year low and the larger walleyes were underfed. Chippewa tribes are allowed to net fish portions of the lake each spring.
Fellegy's immediate goal is stop net-fishing in the troubled lakes. His ultimate goal would be eliminate tribal rights completely. In his opinion, tribal members should be treated as any other United States citizen and not given additional rights. He further rejects the legitimacy of any claims of cultural or religious rights by American Indians.
"I don't think the past holds much weight. The events happened 200 years ago. There's no one alive today that was part of it," said Fellegy in a previous interview.
Fellegy hosts a website on his legal battle at www.casstoday.com
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)