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Taking AIM at AIS: Educating while inspecting

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BEMIDJI — Josh Martindale uses his hands to feel underneath a boat’s hull and trailer, carefully using his fingers to search for evidence of invasive species.

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"I’ve gotten mostly positive feedback when I finish my inspections," said Martindale, an intern with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "The people tell me that they like what we are doing. Hiring inspectors shows that the DNR cares."

The DNR, along with many Minnesotans, has been working for years to combat the spread of aquatic invasive species known to infest state waterways.

One of the primary ways to prevent their further spread is through boat inspections at public accesses.

The northwest region of the DNR — the state agency has four regions — has 25 inspectors who rotate among public accesses inspecting boats for evidence of AIS.

They check to ensure boat plugs are pulled — it is illegal in Minnesota to transport a watercraft without a boat plug removed — and that all water is drained from the boat, livewells and bait buckets. They also check for any vegetation that might be clinging to a boat.

"For most of the inspections, really, the main purpose is education," said Bruce Anspach, DNR watercraft inspection program assistant.

In addition to its own inspectors, the DNR trains staff hired by local governments — such as counties and lake associations — who fund their own positions dedicated to controlling the spread of AIS.

"We’ve seen a lot more interest (in this program)," Anspach said. "I’m not sure exactly why, but it might just be more awareness, people are becoming more aware of invasive species."

The DNR also offers grants that allow the agency to partner with local entities to increase inspection and enforcement with a 50-50 split.

One such recipient is the Friends of Lake Bemidji, the local lake association with a membership of about 160, including shoreline property owners and those invested in maintaining the quality of the lake.

"It’s such a beautiful lake," said Syd Corrigan, vice president of the Friends of Lake Bemidji. "It has so many beautiful beaches."

The Friends of Lake Bemidji secured a grant providing this year for 456 DNR inspection hours; the lake association pays 50 percent of costs while the DNR covers the other half.

Corrigan said the group is committed to the grant for this year and hopes to raise $20,000 next year to hire two full-time inspectors who would rotate among the lake’s three main public accesses: Cameron Park, the Northwoods and Nymore Beach.

"We still have time," Corrigan said, stressing that Lake Bemidji thus far is AIS-free, as are other waterways in Beltrami County. "If we can do the right thing and have the inspectors there (at accesses) and do as much prevention as we can, we can at least hold them off a while, maybe."

Researchers continue to investigate ways to both control and battle AIS, she noted.

"They’re just a disaster for the lake," she said, noting that zebra mussels specifically are a dangerous threat.

With tourism playing such a key role in the Bemidji economy, Corrigan said it is important residents buy into the need to protect local waters from AIS.

"It’s a very serious situation," she said. "It is priority No. 1 for us."

new science center exhibit

In the heart of downtown Bemidji, a new exhibit aims to further educate the public about the threat of AIS.

The Headwaters Science Center has unveiled a new exhibit highlighting the invasive plants, fish and invertebrates threatening our local waterways.

"If people would help, it is possible to at least slow down their approach," said Anita Merritt, a science center staff member and aquatic biologist who led the exhibit’s design. "Probably not stop them but to at least slow them down until we have the means necessary to deal with them."

The science center, after receiving a DNR grant, created the display and placed it on the second floor, an area open to the public at no charge.

A large three-paneled exhibit, it focuses on five species each of invasive plants, fish and invertebrates. Each panel displays actual AIS samples — you can view an actual faucet snail — photos and educational material.

Each section also provides an interactive game, though it is not yet fully functional. Soon, once electronics are put in place, visitors will be invited to view a series of photographs and press one of two buttons, indicating whether they believe that image represents a native or non-native species.

Merritt, who was assisted by fellow science center staff member Frank Hazard and Minnesota Master Naturalists in designing the exhibit, said the game will provide an interactive attraction for younger visitors.

Merritt, stating that conservationism is a moral issue, said we cannot legislate morality but invested residents and visitors can commit to working together to combat the further spread of AIS.

"It is for the good of the lake," she said. "It’s not to keep you off the lake, or to keep you from fishing, but to keep fishing possible."

Many invested residents, such as shoreline property owners and individuals with tourism-related businesses, buy into the need to continue fighting AIS, she said, but focus needs to continue on those visitors who "lake hop," putting one boat into multiple waterways in the same day.

"The natural environment will fight back," Merritt said. "If we can slow it down (the AIS spread), then we give the natural environment a chance. …

"The natural environment just moves at a slower pace than we humans do."

Pioneer Sports Editor Pat Miller contributed to this report.

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