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Otter Tail County hitchhikers: AIS inspectors work to contain zebra mussels, keep out other invasive species

A sign in Detroit Lakes reads, "Help stop aquatic hitchhikers!" The sign urges lake goers to remove aquatic species, drain their watercrafts and dispose of unwanted bait in the trash. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune) 1 / 4
Starry stonewort is an aquatic invasive plant. It is a grass-like algae that is not native to North America. (Dave Hansen/Submitted Photo) 2 / 4
A piece of Eurasian watermilfoil sits next to a penny, illustrating the size of the invasive plant. (Christine Lee/Submitted Photo) 3 / 4
Zebra mussels attach to a native mussel. Zebra mussels are small, fingernail-sized animals that attach to solid surfaces in water. (Megan Weber/Submitted Photo) 4 / 4

After a long day on the lake, getting stopped by an Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) inspector can feel like a hassle. Some boaters and fishermen may wonder if they did something wrong or feel like the spread of invasive species is inevitable anyway, but Lloyd Danzeisen, a seasoned AIS inspector in Otter Tail County, says those few extra minutes it takes to inspect a boat and dump any standing water really do make a difference.

“If we can contain them, the less money we spend to clean them up,” said Danzeisen.

This year the state of Minnesota distributed ten million dollars to counties with lake accesses across the state—that’s how important they feel it is to protect the lakes.

Otter Tail County received $35,000 to help educate the public about invasive species and $250,000 to pay for the salaries of AIS inspectors like Danzeisen, whose job it is to travel to a number of different lakes in the county, making sure boaters are following proper protocol when entering and exiting the water. It’s an important task. Not only is it costly for the state to keep the lakes clean, it’s also costly for the native species if we don’t.

“There’s not a natural balance to the (invasive) plants,” said Danzeisen. “Some of the different plants, they grow so rapidly because there’s nothing to control them.”

Without anything to control the invasive species, they overtake lakes, eating native species and potentially changing the lake entirely.

Danzeisen said some of his friends fish a lake that was infested with non-native carp and, when they returned to it recently, the lake was unrecognizable in terms of how to fish it—their old popular spots were altered.

“The carp that have gotten into the lakes have changed the weed lines,” said Danzeisen.

In Otter Tail County much the same is happening because of the infestation of zebra mussels.

“Weeds change because filter feeders (mussels) take away food from small fish,” said Danzeisen, adding that when the weed lines change, the fish may move to a different area in the lake.

Just last year Otter Tail County saw the spread of more zebra mussels when Battle Lake and Otter Tail Lake were infested and, Danzeisen says when Otter Tail Lake was infested it was particularly upsetting because the entire Otter Tail River, which flows through the lake, was considered infested.

The mussels not only destroy the lake’s ecosystem, threatening native species, they’re also harmful to humans, cutting swimmer’s feet because they’re so sharp and plugging up pumps if people are pumping lake water out to water their lawns.

“(Invasive species) destroy shore line for property owners, potentially affecting property value,” said Danzeisen, adding that each non-native species has it’s own way of harming a lake. “Everyone has their area where they say, ‘Oh, that’s why I don’t want invasive species here’,” he said.

This year, the Otter Tail AIS Inspectors are not just watching for the mussels—they’re also on the lookout for starry stonewort, which showed up in Lake Kronos last year, and eurasian watermilfoil, which has been in Minnesota since the 1980’s.

Both of the invasive plants grow rapidly, affecting the water clarity and affecting recreation activities like swimming, boating, and fishing.

“We’ve kept both of those species out of Otter Tail County,” said Spencer McGrew, an aquatic invasive species specialist.

And they’re determined to keep those species out, which is why McGrew and Danzeisen’s jobs are so important.

Danzeisen says a large part of his job is educating boaters and anglers, telling them it’s important to inspect their boats and drain any standing water because zebra mussel eggs are microscopic.

“All it takes is a thimble-full of water,” he said, adding that if anglers want to keep live bait, they need to have fresh water in their truck to transfer the bait into.

While the water drains from a boat, Danzeisen says it’s a good idea to walk around and take a look at the boat, making sure there aren’t any plants dangling from props.

He says if you also run your hands along the bottom of a boat you can feel if there are mussels attached to it—it will feel like sandpaper. Though that will depend entirely on how long a boat has been in the water. Usually if fishers are in the water for just a few hours the mussels won’t have a chance to attach.

But just a few tasks that take a few minutes really can make a difference.

“Take the time to look and inspect a boat, and say, ‘I can make a difference’,” said Danzeisen. “People need to believe that the spread of non-native species is not inevitable.”

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