State is content to be a benchwarmer in aquatic invasive species battle

September 22, 2023 5:13 pm
Zebra mussels on a rock pulled out of Lake Kampeska at Watertown, and washed-up piles of aquatic weeds. (Brad Johnson, for South Dakota Searchlight)

Zebra mussels on a rock pulled out of Lake Kampeska at Watertown, and washed-up piles of aquatic weeds. (Brad Johnson, for South Dakota Searchlight)

Pathetic best describes South Dakota’s response as zebra mussels and other aquatic invasive species transform the state’s lakes and rivers.

While Minnesota invests heavily in education and research to counter the impacts of zebra mussels, our state gives lip service. 

Leadership flows down from Gov. Kristi Noem and, since protecting our water is not important to her, it is not a top priority for the Department of Game, Fish and Parks.

“It is an inevitable thing,” GF&P Secretary Kevin Robling said of the spread of zebra mussels on Aug. 4 at the annual South Dakota Wildlife Federation conference in Brookings. “All we can do is slow it down.” 

He added, “Minnesota has not figured it out and they spend $11 million a year.”

The glaring embarrassment of our state’s complacency was evident on Aug. 10, when experts from the University of Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center taught a day-long seminar at South Dakota State University in Brookings. 

The class taught about 18 leaders of lakes associations and local government how to identify the many aquatic invasive species, which include plants, fish, crayfish, mollusks and invertebrates like spiny fleas. It was sponsored by the South Dakota Lakes and Streams Association.

Minnesota experts were brought in largely because there are none at the university level in South Dakota. No state funding exists to enable our universities to partner in research or education.

The lack of commitment is evident in GF&P’s weak strategy eight years after zebra mussels were first detected in McCook Lake. Now more than a dozen waterbodies and the James and Missouri River systems are infested. Here is GF&P’s strategy: It will continue boat inspections, work to understand invasive carp movement, build relations with partners, expand outreach efforts to new audiences and create more education materials. The department also announced Friday that it had found zebra mussels in another waterbody — Roy Lake — and has created a Zebra Mussel Rapid Response Team “to better respond to zebra mussels and to keep on top of lake situations,” according to a news release.

Its major focus has been the watercraft inspection program. This year GF&P expects to inspect about 19,000 boats while pushing the theme of Clean, Drain and Dry. But there is no science-based strategy to that effort.

Nearly 65% of those inspections will occur West River, while the vast majority of lakes are East River. The reason: Federal funding, such as that for Bureau of Land Management sites, steers the state’s efforts to the west where most of the federally owned land and reservoirs in the state are located. Little state funding is involved to take GF&P to where the problem really exists.

Glaringly lacking is collaboration with knowledgeable partners.

There is plenty of opportunity. In 2019, Minnesota researchers successfully mapped the genome sequence of zebra mussels, opening the door to controlling the pests. 

“We don’t know yet quite where to attack. But now there’s a whole spectrum of strategies that can be considered,” said Nick Phelps, director of the U of M Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center, in a July 11, 2019, Minneapolis Star Tribune story.

While Minnesota invests heavily in education and research to counter the impacts of zebra mussels, our state gives lip service.

The impact on walleyes and perch is concerning. “It’s not a great picture of what’s happening to walleye lakes,” said Dr. Gretchen Hansen, an assistant professor of fisheries ecology in the Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology Department at the University of Minnesota, in a May 29, 2023, story in “Zebra mussels reduce habitat, reduce the growth (of walleyes), and reduce recruitment, so there’s a lot of other avenues to pursue to understand what to potentially do about that.”

Unfortunately, many people, including some in GF&P’s fisheries department, see zebra mussels as beneficial. The snail-like mollusk with razor-sharp shells filters water. This summer, Lake Kampeska at Watertown resembled an aquarium. Since zebra mussels invaded in 2020, Kampeska’s water largely is absent the normal late-summer algae blooms. The mussels also eat the zooplankton and phytoplankton relied on by small fish and other native species. They also are killing the natural freshwater mussels.

Since sunlight now penetrates deeper, lakes rich in phosphorous from agricultural pollution are experiencing enormous weed growth.

On Lake Kampeska, windrows of weeds have washed up on beaches and boat ramps. Jet ski intakes were snarled and dock fishing became nearly impossible, as did deeper-water fishing because of floating weeds. 

It quickly became apparent at the Aug. 10 seminar that lake associations will be forced to deal with weed management. A seminar on that topic, again taught by University of Minnesota experts, will be held online early next year. 

Limited options for weed management include mechanical harvesting and herbicide application. One is expensive, the other is dangerous. In South Dakota any property owner can get a permit from GF&P to throw herbicides in the water. 

Lacking other leadership, the South Dakota Lakes and Streams Association plans to become an educational resource for lake associations and property owners seeking information on controlling weeds.

Because Gov. Noem’s style stifles innovation at the department level, lake associations are not expecting GF&P to show leadership. But it sure would be welcomed.



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Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a Watertown real estate appraiser, former newspaper reporter and editor, and longtime opinion columnist. He is president of the South Dakota Lakes and Streams Association, vice president of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation and served 16 years on the South Dakota Board of Water and Natural Resources.