Anderson: Unified front required against invasives

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2012 - 11:55 PM

As if taking on invasive species wasn't difficult enough, sportsmen, legislators and DNR officials have not been able to form a unified front.

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DNR officers inspect a boat.

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Minnesota's aquatic invasive species fight turns and twists almost daily. As recently as Friday, the Department of Natural Resources announced that faucet snails were found in leeches purchased in an Otter Tail County bait shop, after being harvested on the White Earth Indian Reservation.

A day earlier, a zebra mussel was found in Lake Minnewaska. And a week ago, the same critters were discovered in Pelican Lake near Brainerd.

Add to this what hasn't been widely reported by the DNR -- that it is developing tentative plans to install three Asian carp barriers in southwest Minnesota rivers; that the DNA technology the agency has been using through a contractor to determine possible whereabouts of Asian carp in the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers might be faulty; that, increasingly, the idea of installing an electrical barrier in the Ford Dam seems overly fraught with dangers; and that in any event, according to a new study, only 10 adult male and a like number of female Asian carp might be needed to establish a population of those fish in the Great Lakes -- and you have, quite simply, chaos.

Consider also two truisms: that individuals rarely act to benefit community ahead of self, and that government and its bureaucrats seem nearly universally incapable of behaving swiftly and effectively enough to thwart significant threats in a timely manner.

Put another way, we're in a world of hurt.

Or could be. Time will tell.

Until it does, an issue no less threatening deserves attention: the power invested by the Legislature in DNR conservation officers to divert from traffic for inspection at "roadside checks" vehicles that are pulling boats.

Some background:

In part at the urging of the DNR, the Legislature has kicked its invasive species fight into a higher gear -- doubling some fines, instituting criminal penalties for some boaters who tote water and aquatic plants on their boats and trailers, and ...

Providing authority for the "checks."

Which -- even if you're not a card-carrying libertarian -- should make you nervous. After all, in virtually all other circumstances, police must have probable cause to pull you over. And even then there are limitations on searches they can conduct absent a warrant.

Yet in this case, the only "cause" boat owners are giving authorities is their affinity for water-borne recreation.

Here's the pertinent section of law:

Conservation officers ... may utilize check stations in locations, or in proximity to locations, where watercraft or other water-related equipment is placed into or removed from waters of the state. Any check stations shall be operated in a manner that minimizes delays to vehicles, equipment, and their occupants.

Call me daft, but when I read that paragraph as it was considered in the Legislature, I thought such check stations would be at or near boat launch sites.

Col. Jim Konrad, DNR enforcement director, thinks otherwise.

"'Proximity' ... it's a very open term," he told me Friday. "It could be miles away from an access point."

And in fact a check last week was lots of miles from an access point, occurring on a highway 17 miles south of Baudette, on the shores of Lake of the Woods.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee and a retired Douglas County sheriff, said Friday that DNR check stations shouldn't be established so far from access points.

"If a check station is set up that far from a landing, that's out of line," Ingebrigtsen said. "Certainly officers have discretion in these matters. But 17 miles down the road? I would hope the DNR would have better discretion than that. If not, we'll revisit it in the Legislature."

• • •

If you regularly trail a boat from lake to lake, the check station issue should be bothersome for two additional reasons.

The first is the way the DNR has prioritized its invasive species inspections and enforcement this summer, with Mille Lacs providing a good example.

Yes, regularly, individual inspectors are stationed at the Garrison public landing and also at the landing near the casino (and other public landings). But decontamination units are there much less often. And the 15 or more private launch sites around the lake get no scrutiny, this even though Mille Lacs this summer is a veritable hotbed of zebra mussels.

Given also that the walleye bite on Mille Lacs has been exceptional this summer, Mille Lacs has been a magnet for anglers from around the state and the Midwest, each a potential courier of zebra mussels back to their home waters.

The DNR's response? Set up a "check station" half a state away, 17 miles south of Baudette, and another in Chisago City not far from the public access at Little Green Lake, where -- as I write this -- I have sat in my truck for nearly five hours without a single boat coming in or going out.

Worse for boaters is this: Depending on the type of craft and trailer they own, they might have difficulty getting legal enough to satisfy conservation officers.

• Example 1: If you own a trailer with carpeted bunks, removing every strand of vegetation from the bunks is nearly impossible. Not that you shouldn't try. But in many instances, at least some vegetation will either stick to the bunks or be stuck between them and the boat.

• Example 2: Depending on a boat's structural design, evacuating all water from it, even if all drain plugs are pulled, can be very difficult if not impossible in the near term. Note here that at the Baudette check station, a boat owner was pinched not because he didn't pull the drain plug from his livewell, but because he didn't use a sponge to collect the excess moisture.

• Example 3: Owners of large outboards, say 90 horsepower and greater, who don't return their engines to vertical after pulling their boats from the water, could be tagged for transporting water if checked by a conservation officer. Returning a large motor to vertical isn't often done because motors usually are tilted fully upward when a boat is loaded onto a trailer to be pulled from a lake, and then returned to a braced (but not vertical) position for transport. As a result, the engine can and likely will retain water for a day or longer -- enough in some instances to run afoul of the law if a conservation officer changes the position of the motor.

Konrad, the DNR enforcement chief, says his officers exercise discretion in these instances to ensure the fairest possible result.

OK.

But it remains true that the consummately chaotic invasive species mess that has enveloped Minnesota has frustrated and, in some instances, angered everyone it has touched: lakeshore owners, legislators, scientists, the Army Corps of Engineers, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr and even Gov. Dayton.

But boaters alone are vulnerable in ways the others aren't.

Yes, boaters should drain their craft of water and clean to the greatest degree possible vegetation and critters from their boats and trailers.

But whether they and they alone should be subjected to being waved off the highway by the government to be inspected is another matter altogether. And a serious one.

I would argue not.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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