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Armed to fight AIS: Beltrami County tackles AIS with new inspection program

Beltrami County recently began voluntary boat inspections for aquatic invasive species (AIS) at public access points at area lakes. Pictured is the new program’s coordinator, BSU grad Chris Richardson. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI -- New state money may help the Bemidji area stem the tide of aquatic invasive species already infiltrating local lakes.

Last August, an inspector found zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil on a boat trailer exiting Lake Bemidji, although the invasives appeared dead and didn't originate in the lake. Also in 2013, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced zebra mussel larvae were found in Lake Winnibigoshish. On Wednesday, they announced Crooked Lake was also infested with zebra mussels. Eurasian watermilfoil have been in Leech Lake for more than a decade.

Zebra mussels can decimate the game fish populations northland communities depend upon to fuel tourism because the mussels steal food from the smaller fish that game fish eat. Invasive plants like watermilfoil also adversely affect a lake's ecosystem, and AIS in general can decrease property values.

Armed with new funding, local agencies are redoubling their efforts to keep aquatic hitchhikers from entering more Bemidji-area lakes.

For the first time, Beltrami County has begun conducting voluntary AIS inspections at public water accesses to supplement mandatory inspections the DNR already conducts. Before this year, the county's mission focused on informing the public through AIS information cards given to local businesses and county conservation officers to pass out during licensing checks.

Chris Richardson, who the county tapped to lead its new AIS inspector program, graduated from BSU this spring. Since their inspections started Memorial Day weekend, Richardson and his nine inspectors have encountered a mostly receptive boating public, he said, although some people refuse to undergo the voluntary AIS inspection.

"Every once in a while, we'll run into a boater who just doesn't want to talk to us or get inspected," he said.

However, the majority of boaters appreciate the effort of Richardson's team.

"We've had a lot of people who have actually thanked us for what we're doing," he said. "(We've) got some good support from the community."

The new inspectors can bar access to the lake if they suspect a boat has AIS attached, and they are equipped to report violations of state AIS regulations to the DNR. Richardson plans to conduct inspections every weekend until fall, he said.

Although the county AIS inspectors didn't find any invasive species on the 70 boats they inspected at Lake Bemidji on Memorial Day weekend, they did manage to fulfill their primary mission of raising awareness among boaters and educating them about AIS. Each time they inspect boats, Richardson's team walks the boat owner through the process -- explaining how the inspection works in the hopes that the boater will be able to replicate it on their own.

"Our hope is eventually just to teach enough people to do their own inspections," he said.

New money

Bill Patnaude, Beltrami County environmental services director, welcomes the new money for county-level AIS programs the Minnesota Legislature approved this year -- about $85,000 for Beltrami County's program in 2014 and $190,000 in 2015.

However, he's wary of possible strings attached to the new funding.

"I want to see what the devil in the details (is)," he said. "What's going to be the... mandatory requirements that we have to do in order to be able to get the money?"

Patnaude said keeping AIS out of lakes around Bemidji will require what he called a "Herculean effort" from inspectors and boaters alike, despite the influx of state cash.

"We've got to be realistic," Patnaude said. "There's no way in hell we're going to have inspectors at every public access. Twenty-four/seven, ain't gonna happen. That's why we need everybody that is a recreational boater, canoeist, fisherman... committed in this."

Before the Legislature gave the county the new appropriation, the AIS program had roughly $15,000 in funding from a combination of DNR grant money, local government funds and donations from lake associations. One of the lake groups, the Turtle River Watershed Association, conducted its own voluntary inspection/education campaign last summer.

Although the money represented the collective support of several different area groups dedicated to the fight against AIS, TRWA chair Ralph Morris said it was just a fraction of what the program now has access to.

"To me, it's really encouraging that we're going to be able to do kind of a home-grown program with local people," he said.

Morris, a retired preventive medicine physician, likened the fight against AIS to the campaigns to stamp out cigarette smoking and promote seat belt use. The war on AIS will never be completely won, but fighting it will improve the welfare of the community, he said. The efforts of inspectors like those in Beltrami County help buy time for a more effective solution to be found through science, Morris said.

"The more we can delay any and prevent the spread of any AIS gives more time for research," he said. "We're playing for time."

Although some may argue since infestation on a particular lake is more or less inevitable AIS prevention efforts are pointless, the argument has no merit, Morris said.

"You can make that argument that it's inevitable and we shouldn't do anything, but you can make the same (argument) about life.. 'We're going to die, so why should we try to lead healthy lives?'" he said. "If AIS is inevitable, I want to be sure that Beltrami County is the last county of the 87 counties in the state of Minnesota to be infested."

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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