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How a citizen-led group hopes to keep invasive species out of the Boundary Waters

The group has managed to boost watercraft inspections on some lakes in the Ely area and to begin inspections on other lakes that have never been monitored for invasive species. But the region is vast.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a 1.1 million square-mile region with 1,600 lakes.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is 1.1 million acres with 1,600 lakes.

For the past year, a network of public and private organizations in northern Minnesota has been meeting with the hopes of developing a management plan that would keep aquatic invasive species from infesting lakes that feed the renowned Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).

Led by Minnesota Lakes & Rivers Advocates, the “working group” began meeting not long after the discovery of zebra mussel larvae in Lake of the Woods, the popular border lake west of the Boundary Waters. The Ely Area AIS Task Force and the U.S. Forest Service are among the organizations that have participated in the discussions.

Jeff Forester, the executive director of Minnesota Lakes & Rivers Advocates, called the need for action “urgent.” An infestation of Eurasian watermilfoil or some other invasive species, because of the potential for damage to vegetation and fish, could devastate the tourism economy in northeastern Minnesota, the group argues.

Forester also noted that no locally driven organization, akin to the lake associations that often work on invasive species prevention, exists for the BWCA. Along those lines, managing the Boundary Waters – a 1.1 million acres region with 1,600 lakes – is complicated by the myriad governmental agencies in the region, including counties, the 1854 Treaty Authority, the state Department of Natural Resources, the Forest Service and the International Joint Commission.

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“It’s a really complex place to get work done because there are so many different authorities,” he said.

So far, the group has managed to boost watercraft inspections on some lakes in the Ely area and to begin inspections on other lakes in the region that have never been monitored for invasive species. But the region is vast.

Watercraft monitoring

The DNR began monitoring boat traffic as a way to curb invasive species nearly three decades ago. Since 2012, counties and other local government units have been empowered to hire their own watercraft inspectors who monitor boats at public landings, ensuring that they are properly drained and free of vegetation. DNR grants help counties, cities and lake associations to pay for the inspections.

Jeff Forester
Jeff Forester
This year, the agency had 86 inspectors of its own, while local governments employed another 922 inspectors, according to DNR figures.

The agency claims that less than 10 percent of Minnesota’s waters have been infested with an invasive species, yet keeping them out of lakes and streams is a continuing challenge. Minnesota Lakes & Rivers Advocates points to recent DNR statistics showing that 19 percent of the watercraft inspected on U.S. Highway 53, which leads to the Boundary Waters, were in violation of invasive species laws.

Where those boats end up isn’t clear. “There are so many different aspects to how a lake gets infested,” said Keri Hull, the DNR’s inspection supervisor in Minnesota’s northeast region. “Unless we see someone is putting a dock fully encrusted with zebra mussels into a lake, we just can’t say for sure.”

She added: “It’s also very hard to say that any specific lake is more or less susceptible than any other. Lakes that are more popular (and have more boat traffic), of course, can be more susceptible, so we base our inspection hours on that.”

The BWCA is largely non-motorized and, so far, remains free of the pervasive aquatic invasive species, especially zebra mussels, that have infested some lakes. Worrisome, however, was the recent detection in its waters of an invasive species known as the spiny water flea. A recent study by the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center has linked a slower rate of physical growth in walleyes in some lakes to the presence of the spiny water flea and zebra mussels. That’s significant because smaller walleye can struggle to survive Minnesota winters, the study said.

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Cori Mattke, the associate director of the center, said invasive species management in the region is further complicated by the breadth of its connected waterways, making public awareness an important part of any solution. “The boundary waters are non-motorized, so you don’t have motors for vegetation to get caught on,” she said. “The risk is really more about the small stuff that can hide in bait buckets and residual water in boats, which makes it a little more challenging for control and prevention.”

Cori Mattke
Cori Mattke
Soon, the center plans to launch an “AIS Explorer” – an online dashboard that will provide information that county officials can use in managing their lakes for invasive species. Specifically, Mattke said, the dashboard will evaluate the risk that zebra mussels and the starry stonewort will infest lakes based on boater movement and water connectivity. It will also help managers place watercraft inspectors in locations with high numbers of “risky” boats – those leaving infested lakes and heading toward non-infested lakes.

Citizen defense

The Boundary Waters group includes residents who have been advocating for a lake association-like model to combat invasive species in the region.

Carrie Ohly-Cusack, a cabin owner on Burntside Lake near Ely, said lake associations on Burntside and nearby Lake Vermillion have been “incredibly productive” in combatting invasive species. The North St. Louis Soil and Water Conservation District now manages watercraft inspections on those lakes and many others in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota.

Even so, she said it would be unrealistic for the new group to be able to garner funding to cover inspections at every, or even most, boat landings in the vast region. So, for her, the question has become: “How can we look at this from a broader perspective, as (creating) something that can manage broad areas without having to have so many inspectors and having to have so much money?”

The group has been meeting once a month – remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the increased inspections, it has also arranged for a small pay increase for watercraft inspectors and is reviewing signage at access points, considering how signs might be updated to provide a more consistent message to boaters about AIS prevention. Forester hopes the group can unveil a broad “AIS prevention plan” sometime next year.

The group is following a “civic organizing” model that draws on the particular abilities of each participant. “Everyone who is looking at this problem can define the problem, and one of those is the bureaucratic network,” Forester said. “No one is really in charge, so the commitment is to close that gap.”

Heidi Wolf, the DNR’s invasive species program supervisor, has attended many of the group’s meetings. While a long-term framework is obviously the goal, simply getting everyone on the same page has been a good start, she said.

“The fact that they have coalesced and begun sharing information together – that is a huge development right there,” Wolf said. “Just that bit of awareness can make a huge difference.”