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Beltrami County mulls hiring AIS coordinator

BEMIDJI — The creeping threat of aquatic invasive species, not yet seen in Beltrami County lakes, rivers and ponds, may result in the hiring of a coordinator to help consolidate efforts to combat the invaders.

It would be a proactive step for a county that is surrounded by others currently dealing with treatment, rather than prevention, of an aquatic infection.

Zebra mussels, Eurasion water milfoil and rusty crayfish have been found in waters south and east of Beltrami County, and have been identified as the main threats.

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources confirmed the presence of zebra mussels in two Itasca County lakes.

“We can’t do nothing, and we’re not going to throw a billion dollars at it,” District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick said. “So we have to agree as an elected board how much and where are we going to get it from.”

County Administrator Kay Mack raised the possibility hiring an aquatic invasive species (AIS) coordinator during the work session of the board’s regular meeting Tuesday night. There, a group of citizens appointed by the board gave a formal report on the threat of AIS in Beltrami County.

The group, made up of representatives from various lake associations, recommended a preventative approach that involves monitoring of watercraft entering and leaving waterways, educating boaters, advocating for funding and lobbying state legislators to take the threat of AIS seriously.

Ralph Morris, of the Turtle River Watershed Association, said boaters are unequivocally the prime spreaders of AIS.

Along with other volunteers, Morris monitored boat ramps over Memorial Day weekend to ensure boaters were following proper procedure. Upon entering or leaving a body of water, boaters should pull their boat’s drain plug in order to avoid transferring AIS from a contaminated lake to a non-contaminated one.

“We call them boat inspections but they’re really targeted education,” Morris said. “I think, without question, even the people that knew the rules and were following them liked the idea that we were out there educating people.”

Boat inspections might be the best weapon against AIS, considering the county has no jurisdictional power to punish those who don’t follow the rules. But exactly who will perform those inspections remains in question.

“We’re going to have to have money, or volunteers or a combination of both,” Mack said.

Money from the county’s development fund might go toward paying volunteers to inspect watercraft, along with possible funding from the state’s Department of Natural Resources and various lake associations. Development fund grants are reserved for organizations who promote tourism and economic development in the county.

Mack said AIS prevention falls into both categories.

Along with commissioners Tim Sumner and Jack Frost, Mack has been working with an organization which may produce a candidate who would coordinate efforts to keep AIS out of Beltrami County waters. Mack did not name the organization Tuesday night.

“Whatever we do we want it to be sustainable, and not a flash in the pan approach,” Mack said. “It’s becoming pretty apparent that it’s going to take someone who is paid, at least to become a volunteer coordinator.”

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