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AIS found on boat exiting Lake Bemidji

BEMIDJI -- A watercraft inspector discovered zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil on a boat trailer exiting Lake Bemidji earlier this month, though they didn't originate here.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources made the announcement this week, and called for boaters to be vigilant and clean their boats when transporting them. The recreation boat discovered in the Aug. 2 incident at the Northwoods water access had recently been in Lake Minnetonka, one of the most infested waters in the state.

However, the zebra mussels and watermilfoil appeared to be dried and dead, said Henry Drewes, the DNR's regional fisheries manager. He said if that's the case, DNR officials wouldn't expect the incident to result in an infestation, something that Beltrami County has thus far been able to avoid.

"What it tells you, though, is that boats coming from infested waters, despite all the publicity, people are still not being vigilant enough about cleaning their watercraft before they move them," Drewes said. "I think it also illustrates the mobility of people and their equipment."

Drewes said he wasn't sure if any follow-up testing or inspections of the water will be conducted. But had the invasive species still been alive at the time of their discovery, there definitely would have been some kind of testing, he added.

The boaters were from North Dakota and visiting family, said Stacey Sharp, the DNR's enforcement captain for the Northwest Region. They cleaned the boat and were issued a $500 fine by a DNR conservation officer.

"The boat had been out of water, they claim, for 10 days," Sharp said. "At some point we're probably going to get (Eurasian watermilfoil and zebra mussels) in Lake Bemidji. We hope we never do, but at some point we probably will.

"In this case, we dodged a bullet."

Nearby lakes haven't been as lucky.

The DNR announced in January that zebra mussel larvae were discovered in Lake Winnibigoshish, marking the infestation of one of the state's most popular fishing and recreation destinations. Eurasian watermilfoil have been in Leech Lake for 10 years, Drewes said, but so far have not been detected in Lake Bemidji.

Lake associations, lawmakers and others say aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels are a threat to the $11.9 billion Minnesota tourism industry. A DNR press release stated that once zebra mussels are established in a lake, they can multiply and affect the ecology and recreation activities.

The state Legislature has taken some steps to stop the spread of AIS, including funding an AIS research center at the University of Minnesota, and funding the DNR's AIS program. The agency has focused on educating the public about cleaning and drying their boats as well as enforcing state laws prohibiting transport of AIS.

"The bottom line is everybody, native Minnesotans, and those who visit our state, have to step up to the plate and take responsibility," Sharp said.

"I think the DNR and the local lake associations have done a great job of getting the word out," he added. "Our hope is that we stop this but if we slow it down, maybe it's as good as we can get."

Pioneer staff reporter Pat Miller contributed to this report.

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John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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