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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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June 2005

Invader alert

Wisconsin targets non-native aquatic species.

Natasha Kassulke

State program | Inspection and information
Boater surveys offer valuable feedback

They have many names: non-native, exotic, alien, invasive and nonindigenous. But no matter what you choose to call them, non-native species are plants and animals living in an ecosystem beyond their native range.


Aquatic invasive species are increasingly recognized as a serious problem in Wisconsin.

"Exotic species control is one of the major environmental issues of the day," says Ron Martin, DNR's aquatic invasive species coordinator, "in terms of habitat destruction and the negative impacts on native species. Since Wisconsin's native species haven't grown up with these new species, they often are not adapted to compete with them or fight back."

The magnitude of this problem has been rapidly expanding. Zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) have the ability to inhabit every hard surface in their path and Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) forms mats so dense that people can no longer boat, fish or swim. Recent and potential introductions of invasive species further threaten Wisconsin waters. There is a growing watch list of species that, while not yet here, are within striking distance of our borders (Invasive Species).

State program

In 2003, the National Aquatic Nuisance Task Force approved Wisconsin's comprehensive aquatic invasive species plan. Funding for implementing the plan has been provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"There are several broad goals in the plan," Martin says, "including preventing the introduction of new exotics in Wisconsin waters, finding ways to slow the spread of established exotics and abating the harmful impacts of aquatic invasives."

Purple loosestrife is a serious aquatic invasive plant found in Wisconsin. © DNR Photo
Purple loosestrife is a serious aquatic invasive plant found in Wisconsin's wetlands.

© DNR Photo

Nationally there is strong competition for funding exotics research. Wisconsin competes with areas such as the Florida Everglades for scarce federal funding. As a result, the state has to ramp up its contribution.

The Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Grant, new in 2004, is a $500,000 annual appropriation. It's funded from the motor boat gas tax revenues that the Department of Natural Resources administers as a 50 percent cost-share grant program to local government. Eligible projects include plan development, invasive species surveys, watercraft inspections and development of educational materials. Control projects are limited to those in DNR approved plans. The Department of Natural Resources has written a rule to administer the program.

"I get satisfaction in knowing that the state is focused on this area of high concern and importance in terms of recreation, tourism, scenic beauty and the health of our lakes and rivers," says Peter Murray, chair of the Wisconsin Council on Invasive Species.

The Council is a little over one year old and its primary work has been to develop a system for classifying invasives and their impacts. The Council also is assessing the effects of the bait industry, pet industry and Internet sales on the spread of invasives. Four subcommittees look at regulations, research, inter-agency cooperation and education.

Inspection and information

Prevention and control strategies in Wisconsin rely heavily on information, education and outreach, as well as watercraft inspection, monitoring, research and policy and legislative initiatives.

"The good news is that there are prevention steps that we can take when boating, fishing, and otherwise enjoying the water to help prevent the spread of invasives," says Mandy Beall, aquatic invasives education specialist for the University of Wisconsin Extension and Department of Natural Resources.

The "Clean Boats, Clean Waters" volunteer program is sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin Extension and the Wisconsin Association of Lakes. Many educational tools are used to reach the public and Beall stresses the importance of delivering a consistent message in multiple formats.

"We need to reach boaters at the landings, but also at home so they are thinking of this even before they leave on a trip to a lake or river," Beall says.

Natasha Kassulke is associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.

Boater surveys offer valuable feedback
A 2003 survey confirms that many of the right people are getting the right message – Clean Boats, Clean Waters.

When surveyed in 2003, boaters overwhelmingly agreed that it is important to take precautions to prevent invasives from moving from one waterbody to another. A majority of those surveyed used smaller boats (less than 20 feet).

The goal of the 2003 survey was to gauge how much progress has been made educating boaters about exotics since 1994 when the last survey was done. Results will be used as a benchmark in future surveys. Survey questionnaires were mailed to 800 randomly selected registered boaters in Wisconsin.

One striking change was in the number of boaters reporting that they take action to prevent the spread of invasive species while boating – 80 percent of those who moved their boats from one waterbody to another indicated they take action, up from 39 percent in 1994.

An important component of the state's educational program is posting signs at boat landings. When asked where boaters have heard about aquatic invasives, 73 percent reported seeing signs at landings and marinas. Many other boaters said they received information from fishing and boating pamphlets, boat registration materials, bait shop signs, newspaper and magazine articles, and television news.

Round gobies are bottom-dwelling fish introduced to the Great Lakes via the ballast water of large cargo ships. © DNR Photo
Round gobies are bottom-dwelling fish introduced to the Great Lakes via the ballast water of large cargo ships.

© DNR Photo

Most boaters said they would take action to clean their boats because they want to keep invasive species out of lakes and streams, and because they feel a sense of personal responsibility. Other factors listed included regulations and a desire to prevent damage to their boats or equipment.

While the report card is positive, the survey also showed areas that need improvement. Twenty percent who said they don't take special precautions to prevent the spread of exotics from one waterbody to another, said they didn't know exactly what to do. And while most boaters had heard about zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha), Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) and purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), less than half knew very much about rusty crayfish (Orconectes rusticus), ruffe (Gymnocephalum cernuus), round goby (Neogobius melanostomus), spiny waterflea (Bythotrephes cederstroemi) and bighead Asian carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis).

The survey concluded that most people know aquatic exotics are bad and that boaters need to take actions to prevent their spread. So, educational campaigns may not need to spend a great deal of effort trying to convince boaters to care about invasives. Instead, the survey points to a need to take the next step and focus on teaching boaters exactly what to do to prevent the spread and to learn about new species.

– Natasha Kassulke

Produced by: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Copyright 2005, Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources