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Innovative aquatic invasive species projects aim to protect Minnesota's beloved lakes. 

By Andy Steiner

Spend enough time near a Minnesota lake and it finds a place in your heart. Your memories are shaped by sunrises on the water, swims from a dock, fish caught at dusk, the sound of waves lapping on the shore.

When a beloved lake or waterway is threatened by aquatic invasive species (AIS), people who’ve spent a good chunk of their lives on or near the water want to take action. That was certainly the case over the last three years as community-based teams from throughout Minnesota sent proposals to the Initiative Foundation to request funding for projects designed to reduce the spread of AIS in their favorite lakes.

The $4 million allocated to the Initiative Foundation by the Minnesota Legislature was earmarked to support innovative strategies to prevent the spread of AIS to the state’s lakes and waterways. Foundation staffers spent months reviewing proposals, selecting the most promising—and awarding funds that were then matched by local partners.

The projects were selected for their innovative approach to address invader species and the geography they affected, according to Don Hickman, Initiative Foundation vice president for community and workforce development. “All of the projects sought to advance a range of strategies to combat AIS,” he said. “We were impressed by their commitment to community and shared solutions to the problem.”

With the funding stage now complete, state financial support for AIS projects continues for another 18 months while the pilot projects are being evaluated. Some of the initiatives are showing progress in the fight against these lake invaders. The evaluation phase allows local leaders to learn what works—and what doesn’t—and adapt their programs.


THE BIG CLEANUP: (left to right) Harvesting starry stonewort on Lake Koronis; rusty crayfish in Lake County; mowing down cattails in Voyageurs National Park.


Lake Koronis

When Kevin Farnum was growing up, his family owned property on Lake Koronis in Paynesville. The lake was an important part of his childhood—the place where some of his most important memories were formed. When his father died, Farnum inherited the Koronis property, and the lake became an even bigger part of his life.

“We have a home on the lake,” Farnum said, proudly. “We’re shore owners.” When a cousin suggested Farnum join the board of the Koronis Lake Association, he gladly obliged.

This is the lake I was raised on,” he said. “I’m very committed to it.”

In 2015, Farnum, a self-described “old retired guy” with a degree in zoology and a background in sanitation and pest control, got a call from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“I was at the State Fair when I got the call,” he recalled. “The DNR told me that Koronis had starry stonewort”—a non-native grass-like algae that forms dense mats on the water’s surface and chokes off other native species. It was the first such case in Minnesota.

About 250 acres of the lake were infested with the rapidly growing invasive. The plants had likely been brought in on the motors of boats that had picked up bits of stonewort in other states. At the time, Farnum was leading the lake association’s AIS efforts, so he quickly began to sketch out a plan of attack.

“Our strategy was that the first thing we needed to do was manage the AIS going out of our lake,” Farnum said, explaining that the board didn’t want to make a bad situation worse.

One area of stonewort infestation was in a channel that boaters use to get in and out of Lake Koronis. Lake association members decided to create a clean access point by clearing all stonewort from the channel. With the help of a mechanical puller and scuba divers, they cleared the plants and treated the area with algaecide.

The next step was to tackle the stonewort in deeper sections of the lake. Led by Farnum, board members decided to take a scientific approach, testing different tactics to see which worked best to keep the invader at bay.

“In one plot we mechanically pulled all the starry stonewort we could get to,” Farnum said. The mechanical puller was followed by a team of scuba divers, who swam to greater depths and pulled the weed by hand. That first year, workers pulled 250,000 pounds of stonewort from 3.8 acres of the lake and trucked the harvested plants well outside of the area to dispose of them.

After they pulled in one test area, the crew moved to another infested location and treated it with algaecide. Both approaches have proved successful, with a 99 percent reduction in the stonewort. The result was good news to Farnum, who is committed to making—and keeping—Koronis healthy for years to come.

“There are people on the lake who feel like they need to do this to protect their property values,” Farnum said, “but that’s not important to me. I’m not going anywhere. I want this lake to be usable for generation after generation, for my kids and grandkids.”

Big Marine Lake

Big Marine Lake is an 1,800-acre hidden gem that boasts clear water, a rocky-bottom, nesting loons and eagles, open shoreline and shallow expanses. And it’s less than an hour outside of the Twin Cities.

Michael Blehert and his family have owned property on Big Marine since 1959. He appreciates his lake’s lower social profile. “Everybody and their uncle have heard of White Bear Lake and Forest Lake,” he said. “But only one out of 20 people have heard of Big Marine Lake.”

For a large, exurban lake, Big Marine is still relatively undeveloped, with some 200 property owners. “Only about 15 of those are big homes,” Blehert said. “There are still a lot of cabins and a lot of older homes here that are very modest.”

It’s part of the lake’s charm, and one of the reasons Blehert is so committed to its preservation. 

For decades, Big Marine Lake stayed clear of invasive species. Then, in 2009, an infestation of Eurasian water milfoil—another invasive that can choke out native plants—was discovered near the lake’s two major boat landings. In response to this discovery, residents formed a lake association to focus on ridding the lake of the invasive species. A mechanical engineer with a commitment to evidence-based eradication tactics, Blehert was elected board president.

By the end of 2014, despite attempts to treat large and small areas of the milfoil with herbicide, it had spread to 40 acres of the lake and was expanding rapidly to others. Something had to be done.

“The plan changed from a ‘control’ mode to a ‘kill’ mode,” Blehert said. Taking an approach that mimics antibiotic dosing, the board decided to treat the milfoil with three separate, smaller doses of herbicide, rather than just one larger application. They also injected herbicide directly into the milfoil’s root balls.

Both approaches appear to be working. By mid-September 2017, Blehert reported, only 6.2 acres of Eurasian water milfoil were found in Big Marine Lake. It’s not a complete removal, not yet, but Blehert believes the strategy is headed in the right direction.

After nine long years spent trying to figure out how to save Big Marine Lake, Blehert thinks his group is finally turning a corner in the fight to kill the milfoil once and for all. He’s happy to share the stories of his success with others fighting the same battle.

“It’s been a long time, but I think it was worth it,” he said. “I believe that our hard and sometimes very frustrating work has proven that it can be done.”

Resort Ambassador Program

Northwoods resort owners know how to welcome visitors. They work hard to make their guests feel at home and provide them with the special comforts that will keep them coming back year after year.

So it was a bit of a hard sell when Jeff Lovgren, Vermilion Lake Association AIS program leader, and his cohorts in invasive species reduction approached resort owners on St. Louis County’s Lake Vermilion and nearby Cass and Itasca counties and asked them to take a more thorough approach to inspecting their visitors’ watercraft.

The area is flush with lakeside resorts, and the nearby lakes were seeing a number of serious infestations. Officers of the 2,400-member strong Vermilion Lake Association believed that uninspected boat launches at private resorts, lodges, marinas and campgrounds were one source of cross-lake contamination. They decided to approach resort owners and see if they would agree to promote aggressive inspections of all watercraft launching from their private access points.

“We wanted to work with resorts to figure out how to expand boat inspection activities,” Lovgren said. Some owners were resistant—nervous that longtime guests would feel hassled by an overly aggressive boat inspector and go somewhere else.

To overcome those concerns, Lovgren and his fellow lake association members worked with resort owners to explain the importance of inspections to overall lake health. The group eventually developed the Resort Ambassador Program, a project that brings people with a stake in the region and the overall health of its lakes together to tackle the problem of AIS contamination.

They decided to bring the plan to the Initiative Foundation for potential funding. Their proposal was multi-pronged and included extending boat inspections from public to private accesses; expanding early detection activities at private access points; and working to convince reluctant resort owners and employees that invasive species are a serious threat to lake health. Resorts even receive compensation if their employees lead education or inspection efforts on private property.

When the group was selected for funding, it gave members a new sense of purpose. “We’d all been dabbling in it, each in our own way,” Lovgren said. “This funding motivates us and makes us feel like a real team. We don’t keep any secrets from each other.” At regular Resort Ambassador meetings, Lovgren added, “we share our successes—and the things that don’t work very well.”

Lovgren believes that sharing strategies and failures with other resort owners and residents is key to making this project as successful as possible. “If we get together regularly and talk about how it’s going in real time, that could make a big difference,” he said. “We know that if we all work together to tackle this problem, we might just be able to solve it.”

Funding for the Initiative Foundation’s aquatic  invasive species program was recommended by  the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC) and approved by the Minnesota Legislature through  the Outdoor Heritage Fund, one of four funds established by the 2008 Minnesota Clean Water Land & Legacy constitutional amendment. 


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