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Dan Gunderson, Published September 18 2013

Groups frustrated with invasives fight

BRAINERD, Minn. – Frustrated by the state Department of Natural Resource’s lack of progress in combating invasive species, some local governments and lake associations are changing their focus from prevention to cure.

Among them are the Gull Chain of Lakes Association, which took the lead in the fight against invasive species in eight popular and highly developed lakes in the heart of cabin country north of Brainerd.

After zebra mussels were found in Gull Lake in 2010, the association was the first to set up a decontamination station to clean boats to prevent the spread of zebra mussels.

Although the group still spends some money on prevention by helping pay for boat inspectors, it now plans to donate money to the new University of Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species research center.

“That in a nutshell, is where we’re going to start putting our money because that’s what you need – somebody that’s going to come up with a way to control zebra mussels,” association vice chairman Ken Stover said. “We’re scared to death what it’s going to do to the fishing.”

In the summer of 2011, the association cleaned 642 boats to keep zebra mussels from spreading to other nearby lakes. But the next summer, it pulled the plug on the project.

“We ended up having some issues with the DNR as far as their new rules and regulations,” said Stover, who said the department’ effort to slow the spread of zebra mussels is ineffective. “We had to follow theirs specifically versus our own.”

Another challenge was finding workers to run the decontamination unit from sunup to sundown. But Stover said the association was willing to spend the $60,000 it cost to hire workers to operate the unit for the summer.

Stover said lake cabin owners wanted an aggressive approach that would decontaminate boats that left the lake and boats that came from other waters infested with any invasive species.

He said state Department of Natural Resources rules limited how often and where boats could be cleaned.

An hour and a half northwest in Hubbard County, the focus is still on prevention, and so far it’s worked. None of the lakes that are concentrated in the southern part of the county near Park Rapids are infested with zebra mussels.

Local governments and lake associations raised $140,000 this year to hire 22 boat inspectors and set up a decontamination station to clean boats using Hubbard County lakes.

Boats are cleaned using a pressure washer with hot water. The unit was set up this summer in the small tourist town of Dorset. Watercraft sent to the decontamination station by inspectors at lake access points are cleaned free. The county breaks with DNR regulations by charging a $25 fee to decontaminate boats at the owners’ request.

It’s the most aggressive program outside the seven-county Twin Cities metro area, said Ken Grob, who coordinates the aquatic invasive species program for the Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Associations.

Grob, who worries about sustaining local spending long term, would like to see more state funding. This year the Hubbard County initiative included just $7,500 in state grants.

“I don’t think that I’m going to be asking for less money from our townships, cities and county,” he said. “But hopefully I won’t have to ask for much more and we can get a supplement.”

It’s hard to find good data on how much local groups are spending to fight invasive species. A partial survey of members by the Minnesota Coalition of Lake Associations found that from 2010 to 2012, local governments increased spending on invasive species by more than 50 percent. Volunteer funding increased by 35 percent.

Local spending on aquatic invasive species equals or exceeds the $8.5 million DNR budget for invasive species programs, said Jeff Forester, executive director of the group Minnesota Lakes and Rivers.

DNR Invasive Species Unit Supervisor Ann Pierce agrees the state should provide more funding for local efforts and said local partnerships are critical to preventing the spread of invasive species. Pierce said the state can’t afford a massive program to inspect every boat using Minnesota lakes.

“But I think the idea of some sort of funds to help support those partners through a grant program is something that we think is important,” she said. “You know, hopefully we can get to a point where we’re providing them with enough money to support the programs that they want.”

Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mprnews.org