Dennis Anderson: Undercover angler investigates invasive species security

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 3, 2012 - 1:07 AM

Are there cracks in security when it comes to the fight against invasive species at two west-metro lakes? Or could they be models for others? This fisherman went to find out.

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Carver County watercraft inspector Ben Bonar looks over a boat owned by Gene Herzan (back, left) of Minnetonka after Herzan pulled the boat from Lake Minnewashta, where he had been panfishing. The boat launch at Minnewashta is staffed virtually all hours it is open by a Department of Natural Resources trained inspector.

Photo: Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

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How much "protection" against invasive species are the state's most protected lakes receiving this summer?

I went to find out last week, visiting with my boat and trailer Lake Minnewashta and Christmas Lake, both in the west metro.

Unlike the state's other 5,491 fishable lakes, Minnewashta and Christmas are staffed nearly continuously by trained invasive species inspectors.

Both lakes also have gates limiting entry to their single public accesses, and inspectors at both accesses check boats going in, and coming out.

Carver County and the Minnehaha Creek watershed district foot the bill for county inspectors at Lake Minnewashta, while at Christmas Lake, affected homeowners and the Minnehaha watershed district cover costs of a private security firm whose Department of Natural Resources-trained inspectors staff the entrance.

Gating systems at the two lakes are similar but different.

At Minnewashta, a regional park surrounds the boat access, and entry to the park is gated. Passage is allowed by fee between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

At Christmas Lake, entry and exit gates were installed last November at a cost of about $26,000, about half of which was paid by lakeshore owners and the rest by the watershed district and the city of Shorewood.

The intent at both lakes is to keep out zebra mussels in particular, as well as other invasive species.

Boaters wanting to drop watercraft into either lake must answer questions posed by inspectors, and must also submit their boats for inspection.

The inspectors can deny access if they suspect a boat or trailer is carrying zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil or something equally evil. If necessary, the inspectors can call DNR conservation officers or other authorities to mitigate disputes or enforce laws.

Contrast those protection systems with -- for example -- the one in force this summer at Mille Lacs, where at any given time, DNR inspectors are stationed at only one or two (or none) of the lake's more than 15 public accesses.

Mille Lacs' 50-plus private accesses, meanwhile, aren't ever staffed.

Thus a question: By dint of their gated entrances and trained watercraft inspectors, are Minnewashta and Christmas more likely than other less closely monitored lakes to escape the plague of bad-news plants and animals invading Minnesota?

Or are these "inspectors," their DNR certifications notwithstanding, little more than college kids intent on working on their tans while on someone's payroll.

I took my boat and trailer to each lake to try to find out.

• • •

First stop was Minnewashta, where at the regional park's gatehouse I bought an annual visitor pass for $24, good also for Carver, Anoka and Washington county parks.

Then it was on to the lake's boat landing, where Ben Bonar, a graduate student working as a Carver County inspector, introduced himself, inquiring if he could begin his overview of my boat by asking a few questions.

I presented myself only as a boater interested in fishing Minnewashta, saying nothing about my affiliation with the Star Tribune, or that I was working on a story. "Sure," I said.

Among Bonar's first questions: "When was the boat last in the water, and where?"

My answer: White Bear Lake, less than 24 hours before.

What Bonar didn't ask was: What lakes, if any, had my boat been in during the previous five days -- the time, the DNR says, it takes an unwashed boat to "dry," killing any zebra mussels attached to it?

My answer would have been: Four days earlier, the St. Croix; three days earlier, Deer Lake, Wis.; and one day earlier, White Bear.

Otherwise, Bonar's questions about invasive species were straightforward, and he recorded my answers on a personal digital assistant (PDA) to be downloaded later into a DNR database.

Then Bonar checked my boat, and his inspection was more than a drive-by. He felt below the craft's waterline for the sandpaper-like presence of juvenile mussels, checked that the bait well and live wells were empty of water, looked at the intakes on the outboard, and otherwise gave the boat a thorough once-over.

When he was finished, I told him I didn't intend to launch the boat, and was interested only in observing the inspection process and, ultimately, writing about it for the Star Tribune.

I asked: "What if I had told you I just came from [zebra mussel-infested] Lake Minnetonka?" Bonar indicated his inspection might then have been somewhat more detailed.

"Have you denied anyone access to the lake?" I asked. Only three times, Bonar said, each to lakeshore residents who tried to launch pontoons that had been stored over the winter and were laced with dried vegetation.

I left thinking that a) Bonar did a good job and b) the DNR's list of questions, the foundation for its inspection protocol, needs amending, in part to better alert inspectors about the whereabouts of boats not just in the day previous, but the week previous, and more importantly to give policy-makers a more detailed understanding of the mobility of Minnesota boat owners -- anglers in particular.

• • •

Next stop, Christmas Lake, where I was greeted by Kian Amani, who works for Volt Workforce Solutions. Like Bonar, Amani was trained by the DNR, and he asked the same questions, recording them not on a PDA, but on paper.

Then Amani inspected my boat -- though for a long moment, I didn't think he would, settling instead only for the questions and answers. Was he thorough? Generally, yes. But not as thorough as Bonar.

Again, I told Amani I hadn't intended to launch and that I was writing a story, the central question of which would be:

Is all this effort, with gates and inspectors, worth the time and money required in the fight against invasive species?

In the end, my answer: probably, as a deterrent. But there are no guarantees, and the chances the lakes will remain mussel-free probably decrease over time, as these critters spread to more surrounding lakes.

Left unsaid in all of this is not the threat posed by traveling anglers, of whom this state has a lot. The focus instead -- or also -- should be on wakeboard boats, which are frequently moved from lake to lake, particularly in and out of Minnetonka (and Christmas Lake), and which can't be completely emptied of their ballasts, virtually guaranteeing them as possible vectors for infestation.

Meanwhile, summer unfolds and inspections continue -- more so at Minnewashta and Christmas lakes than at other waters.

Perhaps some good will result.

But don't bet on it.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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