GRAND FORKS, N.D. — A decade ago, the nearest lake infested with zebra mussels was a 2½-hour drive from the North Dakota border.
Today, they’re knocking on the door.
The arrival of adult zebra mussels in the Red River this fall has raised concerns from resort owners operating in Devils Lake, one of North Dakota’s most popular fisheries, with some worried the invasive species could spread west and hamper a local economy driven by recreation.
North Dakota and Minnesota designated the Red River, which forms the border between the two states, as an infested water body this year after the invasive species was discovered in several areas in the river.
While state officials say the Red River is the only water body in North Dakota containing zebra mussels, some worry they’ll continue to spread. The fingernail-sized pests can latch onto boat motors, clog municipal water intakes and be hazardous to swimmers who can cut their feet on their shells. The invasive species also can affect fish populations.
“Our fishery is a big economic impact to our community, and we can’t afford to lose that or have it damaged,” said Kyle Blanchfield, owner of Woodland Resort in Devils Lake. “Those are all serious repercussions of zebra mussels getting from the Red to Devils Lake somehow. It’s right there now.”
The discoveries didn’t come without warning. A 2005 report prepared by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department said “zebra mussels are moving closer to North Dakota each year.” At the time, the nearest infestation was less than 150 miles away in Lake Ossawinnamakee near Pequot Lakes, Minn.
North Dakota officials and business owners said boat owners and recreationists will ultimately bear at least some of the responsibility for preventing or controlling the spread. But Blanchfield, while calling the initial approach of educating anglers and enacting new regulations a “great start,” advocated for additional measures.
“I think we’re going to have to take it a notch higher,” he said. “And that would be everything from mandatory boat washing stations to mandatory boat inspection stations to whatever. I think it’s time to sound the alarm and do what we have to do to keep this out of North Dakota.”
Stopping the spread
Zebra mussel veligers, or larvae, were discovered in six sites along the Red River from Wahpeton, N.D., to Pembina, N.D., in July, according to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Earlier this month, the department announced three adults were discovered on the Sorlie Bridge between Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, and about 30 more were discovered in the area days later.
The Game and Fish Department announced emergency rules in August designed to prevent zebra mussels from spreading to other bodies of water, which included a ban on transporting live bait in water away from the Red River. Moreover, all boats and watercraft must have plugs pulled when leaving the river.
The emergency rules came on top of existing regulations that require water to be drained from watercraft and aquatic vegetation to be removed before leaving a water body. Live aquatic bait or vegetation may not be transported into North Dakota, and all water must be drained from boats before entering the state.
Similar regulations exist in neighboring Minnesota, where zebra mussels have infested numerous lakes and rivers. But boaters there may also encounter inspection checkpoints before entering or leaving a water access.
The state set aside $4.5 million for grants to local governments for aquatic invasive species programs 2014, followed by $10 million in 2015. That money could be used for watercraft inspections at water access points.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources trained more than 660 local government watercraft inspectors between April and September, which is in addition to the department’s own inspection staff of 100.
Some may question the success of those programs, given new infestations still pop up, said Gary Montz, a DNR research scientist. Still, less than 2 percent of Minnesota lakes are listed by the DNR as being infested with zebra mussels.
“I would say they have had some success,” Montz said.
The transportation of zebra mussels in both Minnesota and North Dakota is a misdemeanor.
Costs and benefits
Unlike Minnesota, North Dakota does not have formal watercraft inspections at lake access points, said Fred Ryckman, the aquatic nuisance species coordinator at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. However, enforcement staff conducts roadside checks “as part of their routine work,” he said.
Ryckman said the need for more boat inspections has to be balanced with its costs. He pointed out that no program can catch all boats, leaving an opportunity for zebra mussels to slip through the cracks.
“If you inspect half of them, then what are the chances that the half you don’t inspect have some sort of contamination that’s being moved?” he said. “That’s a legitimate concern in terms of how much money you spend, recognizing that you don’t inspect them all.”
Still, the North Dakota department may be in a better position to prevent the further spread of zebra mussels than it was in the past. The 2005 aquatic nuisance species management plan called the state’s prevention and control efforts “loosely organized and underfunded” that responded to isolated infestations instead of developing comprehensive strategies to deal with the issue.
“The most important lesson learned from the experiences of other states is the wisdom that prevention is much more effective and much cheaper,” the report adds. “Prevention requires intense and effective public education, developing partnerships, voluntary actions and organization among state agencies.”
Ryckman said that report marked changes in their invasive species programs and regulations.
“There was nothing really going on before that, and there’s been a lot going on after that,” he said, adding that the department is “certainly concerned” about protecting North Dakota waters from zebra mussels.
Duaine Ash, former president of the North Dakota Sportfishing Congress, said the state Legislature has been “receptive” to their concerns about invasive species, and the Game and Fish Department “is doing as much as they can with what they’ve got.”
But Ash called for stiff penalties for anglers who break the rules.
“The point that we’re trying to make to everybody is that we’ve got to have some severe fines for anybody that’s caught with undrained livewells,” he said. “Because once the zebra mussels are introduced, they’re here.”
That thought troubles Suzie Kenner, the executive director of the Devils Lake Chamber of Commerce. She said hunting and fishing only trail agriculture as drivers of the local economy, with anglers and recreationists occupying many of the area’s hotel rooms.
“It’s been on our radar for the last decade,” she said.
Whether North Dakota lawmakers take additional steps against zebra mussels is unclear. The state Legislature doesn’t meet again in regular session until 2017.
“I suspect it’s something the Legislature will have to take another look at,” said Rep. Curt Hofstad, R-Devils Lake. “The fishery is important to Devils Lake, and that certainly would be devastating.”