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Local governments are using increasingly creative intervention strategies while engaging the public to help preserve the quality of our lakes and rivers

In the battle against aquatic invasive species (AIS) in Minnesota lakes and waterways, Lake County in northeastern Minnesota has an advantage. Its AIS species is tasty.

Derrick Passe, Rainy River coordinator for the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), called rusty crayfish “little lawnmowers” for their ability to rapidly denude lake vegetation. The Ohio River Valley natives have been in the waterways near and within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for years; recently, they’ve been threatening to spread farther, removing valuable vegetation and crowding out smaller native crayfish.

Lake County SWCD has been coordinating to trap these pests, but to get the public involved it has to spread the word. That’s why it organizes a rusty crayfish “boil” every other Tuesday during the warmer months at the Ely Farmers’ Market. The scent of vinegar and seasoning, along with the lobster-like flavor of the crayfish, lures people over to the District’s AIS booth. There they can learn more about preventing its spread into other Boundary Waters lakes.

Most anti-AIS agencies don’t have that kind of luck. Eurasian milfoil, zebra mussels and newer threats including Asian carp and starry stonewort require counties to conduct boat inspections at lake landings and to educate residents, resort owners, anglers and visiting boaters to “clean, drain and dry” their boats. Nobody wants to cook these species—counties, lake associations, resorts and boaters simply want them gone, or at least not to spread.

Happily, they’ve been getting help. In 2014, the Minnesota Legislature appropriated $10 million a year to help counties battle AIS in their waters. Another $4 million was recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council and was approved by the 2014 Minnesota Legislature for disbursement to the Initiative Foundation to fund innovative statewide pilot programs to prevent the spread of invasives. 

Thus far, the Initiative Foundation has awarded more than $1 million to anti-AIS initiatives across the state, ranging from catch and release projects to combat rusty crawfish, decontamination efforts in Kandiyohi and Carver Counties and integrated pest management initiatives. In Stearns County, where Lake Koronis has been infested with starry stonewort, a grass-like algae, the Koronis Lake Association has set up a program of containment and control to manage the infestation and keep it from spreading. 

In Lake County, SWCD’s crayfish boil is one of the creative ways that organizations are informing the public about AIS. In the battle against these invaders, inspections, decontamination and clear and effective communications need to be part of a comprehensive strategy.

Broadcasting the Message

AIS has been “one of the primary concerns or threats to Minnesota lakes and waterways for more than a decade,” said Don Hickman, vice president for community and workforce development for the Initiative Foundation. The Foundation, Hickman added, is working with communities statewide to develop an engaged vision that brings together as many stakeholders as possible—anglers, resort owners, tribal communities, pleasure boaters, government units, nonprofits and others. With AIS control a rapidly developing field with no one single solution, he said, the Foundation wants to “foster a culture of creativity and innovation.”

One of the Foundation’s AIS grant recipients is Wildlife Forever, a national organization that developed the “Clean, Drain, Dry” message that has become a keystone of anti-AIS tactics. It also provides an extensive catalog of printed materials that organizations can tap to spread the word. Pat Conzemius, Minnesota conservation director for Wildlife Forever, said his organization will use its grant, in part, to reach new audiences in new ways—including the use of Augmented Reality (AR) graphics that, when scanned by smartphone-toting anglers, will pop with infographics and other interactive content such as video.

“Folks will be able to scan our graphics—print ads, bar coasters, placemats and signage at a boat ramp—to get an AIS tutorial on how they can help with prevention efforts,” he said, noting that AR graphics will reach a different demographic than billboards and ramp signs traditionally reach. “We’re just scratching the surface on potential uses, but it will definitely bring boat ramp signs into the 21st century.”

Other initiatives aim for a more general audience. The eight-county Mississippi Headwaters Board, which works to protect the big river’s first 400 miles, will use the grant to help expand distribution of two AIS infomercials that his organization has produced, according to Executive Director Tim Terrill. The “Minnesota Traditions” infomercials have been playing throughout the state on broadcast television and Fox Sports North.

These broadcasts will show how “minimal change in boaters’ habits can really help us protect our lakes here in Minnesota,” Terrill said. His group is using social media platforms to target younger recreationalists, including pleasure boaters, kayakers, water-skiers and duck hunters.

Another grant recipient is Buffalo-based Crow River Organization of Water (CROW), which works with government units and organizations in portions of 10 Central Minnesota counties that are part of the Crow River watershed. In the past two years, CROW has provided programming support for county governments and other entities throughout the watershed. It also has been creating educational materials and presentations at county fairs, bait shops, gas stations and waterway access points, as well AIS-focused articles and publications for lake associations property owners and area residents.

Targeting Teens

CROW is using its Initiative Foundation grant to reach the next generation. It is creating classroom presentations and materials designed to be informative and fun, including journaling materials and games. In particular, it will target teens who are starting to make unchaperoned use of their parents’ jet-skis and boats. CROW is planning focus groups that will bring young people together to determine the best strategies for educating younger water-based recreationalists about  AIS.

One thing CROW already has learned: Kids use social media to get and share information—but Facebook isn’t their top cyberspace gathering spot. So it’s targeting AIS messages on other platforms, such as Instagram. Last summer, CROW also sponsored pre-movie AIS trailers in Delano and Hudson, a program it plans to repeat this season.

CROW also has conducted focus groups with lake property owners. (When it comes to AIS information, most prefer traditional newsletters and mail over digital communication.) And with funds from the Initiative Foundation and watershed counties, CROW is distributing waterproof cellphone bags to hunters that include AIS prevention tips.

“We work really hard so that we’re being inclusive in the conversation about how to prevent the spread of AIS,” said Charlene Brooks, CROW’s water resource specialist. CROW Watershed Coordinator Diane Sander said her organization will continue to develop “creative ways to get the AIS message out to multiple users.” That will include outreach to businesses in the watershed counties.

Cass County also is using a Foundation grant to train inspectors on how to de-escalate confrontations with recreationists. Rima Smith-Keprios, AIS program coordinator for the county’s Environmental Services Department, has contracted a survey of county lake-resort owners to determine the best ways to talk about AIS prevention without “scaring customers away” from their lakes. “We felt that the resort owners were a huge part of the puzzle,” Smith-Keprios said. “We didn’t know a lot about what they were doing, how they were doing it. We found out they felt that they were really overlooked as far as having a voice in the whole process.”

In the fight against AIS, access inspection still remains key. Cass County Environmental Services has secured funds matching an Initiative Foundation grant to create training workshops for rookie watercraft inspectors. To develop these workshops, Cass County is partnering with Minnesota Sea Grant, the University of Minnesota, the state Department of Natural Resources, Central Lakes College and others.

Partnerships, communication and the sharing of good ideas and best practices are essential in the ongoing, ever-shifting battle against aquatic invasive species. As Lake County SWCD’s Passe noted, paraphrasing a Boundary Waters conservation officer, “Ultimately, the spread of AIS has to be stopped by neighbors talking to neighbors.”

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