Coalition brining AIS fight to Boundary Waters

May 27, 2020

REGIONAL—In the fight against aquatic invasive species, lake associations in Minnesota have often been leading the way. Organizations like the Vermilion Lake Association or the White Iron Chain of Lakes Association, are two organizations that have played a significant role in educating lake users, developing inspection programs, and lobbying for resources.

But what about the nearly 1,600 uninhabited lakes found within the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness? Who is advocating to protect those lakes from the risks posed by aquatic invasives?

It turns out, a new coalition of both state and local organizations and government agencies has come together to begin to address the threat posed by aquatic invasives in the BWCAW.

While the vast majority of BWCAW lakes remain free of invasive species for now, both spiny water fleas and rusty crayfish have gained a significant foothold, which has the potential to impact fisheries in the wilderness. The Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center, MAISRC, linked a reduction in the size and abundance of walleye and perch species to spiny waterflea, while rusty crayfish wreak havoc on native crayfish and aquatic plants.

As Minnesotans have demonstrated, efforts to control the spread of invasive species can be effective. That’s one reason that less than ten percent of Minnesota lakes are currently infested with one or more invasive species. By extending those efforts to the BWCAW, members of the new coalition are hoping to head off potential problems.

“The very real risk we face is that a headline could appear across Minnesota newspapers this summer that zebra mussels were found in Basswood,” said Carrie Ohly-Cusack, an Ely area cabin owner who is working with the coalition.

While some AIS experts believe that zebra mussels are unlikely to survive in most Canadian Shield lakes, due to low amounts of the calcium that mussels need to build their shells, that confidence was shaken last year with the discovery of immature zebra mussels, known as “veligers” in Lake of the Woods, a shield lake with similar water chemistry to many lakes in the BWCAW. That revelation was a “wake-up call” notes Ohly-Cusack, one that prompted greater concern for lakes in the BWCAW.

Developing a plan to effectively address the AIS threat won’t be easy, notes Jeff Forester, executive director for Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates.
“The overlapping agencies, tribal governments, lake associations, and interested citizens and business groups involved in the management of the BWCAW are as complex as the geography of this area,” he said.

While canoeists are unlikely to transport aquatic species, Forester said the largest risk to the Boundary Waters comes from infestations in lakes just outside the wilderness boundary. He said Birch Lake, near Babbitt, is one example of a lake that is part of a major watershed just upstream of the wilderness. Because the waters are so interconnected in canoe country, invasive species can spread widely once established, even without further human assistance. “That puts the Boundary Waters at pretty high risk,” said Forester.

Other factors only increase that risk, notes Forester. The Boundary Waters’ wilderness protections are likely to complicate any effort to address aquatic invasive outbreaks if and when they do occur. In some cases, the DNR has been able to deploy chemicals in lakes to eliminate invasive species when small pockets are first discovered. But such efforts would likely be inconsistent with wilderness protections.

Coalition efforts

The new coalition is utilizing an approach known as “civic organizing,” in which each of the entities involved plays a role that’s consistent with their expertise and available resources. “This is an organizing approach, not a mobilizing or an activities-centered approach. We will define the problems, with a focus on the capacities of each partner, and then focus on solutions that leverage those unique capabilities and resources of the many different groups. What is impossible for one is possible for a broad cross sector base with each contributing.”

The coalition group hopes to have a working plan in place which prevents the infestation of all water bodies that drain into the BWCAW for open water by 2021.

That plan won’t necessarily include a request for additional resources. “Those of us focused on this issue do not think more money and more inspections are the only answer,” said Forester. “There are many practical alternatives that could be implemented immediately and would save money.”
The new coalition meets monthly. In addition to a core working group of active citizens, the group is also including a broader group of interested stakeholders and keeping them informed of their progress.
For more information, contact Forester at [email protected].