A new aquatic invasive species program is scrambling after the shutdown delayed action.
The groundwork was laid in January for a new and much improved aquatic invasive species prevention and control program to be launched in Minnesota this summer.
It was then, at the Department of Natural Resources Roundtable for key stakeholders, that the seriousness of the problem confronting the state was underscored, and then also that powerful legislators committed to finding more money to fight the spread of Eurasian water milfoil and zebra mussels, among other problem plants and critters.
Gov. Mark Dayton hopped on the bandwagon also, proposing during the legislative session to increase watercraft registration fees to pay for more boat inspectors, more hours spent by DNR conservation officers enforcing tougher invasive-species laws, and portable boat decontamination stations statewide.
The DNR said the higher fee would generate long-term money it needed to control, especially, zebra mussels -- which can dramatically change a lake's ecology.
Republican legislators balked at the fee idea, instead allocating about $7 million this fiscal year and $8 million next year to fight invasive species. About $6 million in one-time cash was tapped for the biennium from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, or lottery money.
Which is where matters stood when state government hit the skids June 30.
Now behind schedule, DNR aquatic invasive species specialists are scrambling to make up lost time, realizing that while the government might have quit working for about three weeks, zebra mussels in Minnesota's 50 or so infested lakes and rivers likely kept multiplying. Or spreading.
"Our No. 1 priority now is to get new inspection and decontamination procedures written, to get new inspectors trained and to get our three boat decontamination stations into the field,'' DNR invasive species program supervisor Luke Skinner said Thursday.
DNR boat inspectors who had been stationed throughout the state at public launch sites before the shutdown are back on the job, Skinner said.
The DNR hoped to add 20 specially trained inspectors this summer, funded by its new allocation. But the plan now is to fast-track that effort by filling most of those positions from existing DNR seasonal staff.
Two levels of inspectors strategically positioned throughout the state are envisioned. Particularly targeted by inspectors will be zebra mussel-infested lakes that are heavily used by transient boaters, such as Minnetonka and Mille Lacs.
Both types of inspectors will have authority to require boat owners to allow inspection of their craft. Both also can deny access to a lake or river if an inspection request is refused, or if a boat or trailer is found to be transporting invasive plants or animals.
Inspectors with a higher level of training can also decontaminate boats, and inspectors of either level can call for help as needed from a conservation officer or other peace officer.
That won't happen often, Skinner said. "Most people want to cooperate,'' he said.
Notwithstanding the work being done to re-energize the invasive species fight, lakeshore cabin and home owners throughout much of Minnesota worry the DNR isn't being aggressive enough in its attempt to control the spread of aquatic invasive species.
Some lake associations, together with some local units of government, want stricter control of boats coming into and leaving infested waters.
One proposal would require boats in infested waters to be identified with red stickers, for example. Sticker colors couldn't be changed unless the boats were decontaminated.
For now, Skinner said, the DNR is concentrating on implementing standardized inspection and decontamination procedures that can be used statewide.
He concedes that some might think three portable decontamination stations in a state with 10,000 lakes is a modest salvo in the war against invasive species.
But until the budget impasse between the governor and Legislature was resolved, the DNR didn't have money to buy more.
"By next summer, we hope to have a fleet of between 20 and 40 decontamination stations throughout the state,'' Skinner said, adding that in any event most examinations likely won't reveal zebra mussels stuck to a boat.
Inspectors instead will focus on finding vegetation attached to a boat or trailer or water in the bilge, live well or bait well -- all of which can transport unseen invasive hitchhikers.
"'Clean, drain and dry' is what we stress to boaters,'' Skinner said. "Clean off your boat and trailer, drain all the water'' and let the boat dry before launching it in another lake or river.
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