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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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June 2005

On the front line

Volunteers detect and defend.

Natasha Kassulke

County coordinator
Purple loosestrife project
Superior Days

Preventing the spread of invasives requires the attention of everyone involved in water recreation. Volunteers are one of the best lines of defense.


"Clean Boats, Clean Waters" watercraft inspection volunteers have been trained on how to properly clean boats and instruct boaters on how invasives can be inadvertently moved between waterbodies. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, UW-Extension, and local County Land and Water Conservation Departments host training workshops for volunteers who then go back to their communities conduct boater education programs.

"In 2004, watercraft inspectors spent 1,103 hours at boat landings, checked 2,468 boats and contacted 5,079 people," says Laura Felda-Marquardt, the University of Wisconsin Extension invasive species program volunteer coordinator. "Crescent Lake and Shell Lake are both great examples of what individual lake groups can do, while Vilas County is a great example of a countywide approach to combating invasives."

The Crescent Lake Association Board of Directors in Oneida County formed a volunteer watercraft inspectors program in 2004. Volunteers worked for 20 weeks during the summer at the boat landings talking with boaters and inspecting boats. Crescent Lake inspectors contacted 454 boaters, inspected 244 boats and logged in 153 volunteer inspection hours. The only cost beside their time was the $25 fee for the workshop and materials. Twelve boats were found to have attached aquatic vegetation, two of which were identified as Eurasian watermilfoil.

Two years ago, the City of Shell Lake in Washburn County began a project to keep invasives from spreading to their lakes. Their first step was to close all but the major public boat landing on Shell Lake to concentrate volunteer hours on inspecting boat trailers at one location. A sign at the main landing alerted boaters of the need to protect the lake from exotics. Collection bins were placed at the landing for disposing of aquatic plants pulled from boats and trailers.

The city also hired a coordinator to recruit and train volunteers, and local media and citizen groups spread the word about the volunteer program. Volunteers at the landing were given a list of Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) infested lakes in Wisconsin and Minnesota, a whisk broom for brushing off trailers and a diagram of key areas to inspect on boats and trailers. Funding came from a cost-shared lake planning grant and aquatic invasives grant administered through the Department of Natural Resources. Another grant is being used to study the feasibility of a boat wash station at the lake. Reactions have been positive and volunteers inspected 1,358 boats in 2004. Eurasian watermilfoil was found on boats or trailers on three occasions.

County coordinator

Vilas County is becoming a model for countywide management and volunteerism in its battle to fight aquatic invasives. A state grant funds Ted Ritter's position as county invasives species project coordinator. He came to the position with experience in dealing with exotics as the town supervisor for the Little St. Germain Lake District.

"There is widespread agreement that the problem of exotics and the potential for damage to the county's natural resources and, thus, its economy, is too big for any one entity to solve," Ritter says.

The Vilas County Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Planning Partnership, formed early this year, consists of 75 members. Additional membership is anticipated as nonresident lakefront property owners return from their winter retreats.

Over the next few years, the partnership will develop and implement a strategic countywide plan for combating exotics – an opportunity for efficient and effective AIS information to be collected or developed and disseminated to the 14 towns and approximately 70 lake organizations throughout the county.

"Some communities are attempting to deal with exotics at a great expense. The battle continues and there is an unknown outcome," Ritter says.

The partnership offers opportunities for public participation in the following five areas:

  • public awareness and education
  • prevention and early detection programs
  • infestation management programs (for new or existing infestations) including a rapid response system
  • research (information gathering)
  • ordinance development

One noteworthy project will be developing a management plan to deal with dense strands of Eurasian watermilfoil infestation on Big Sand Lake (at the head of the Deerskin River) and downstream water including the Eagle River Chain of Lakes, which is also infested.

"Local lake organizations are the foundation blocks of the county's efforts and as such," Ritter says, "every town board in the county is being encouraged to establish a town lakes committee as an officially recognized unit of local government." Creating these committees will enable lake organizations within a township to pool human and financial resources and function under the umbrella of their town boards.

"People need to accept the fact that lake stewardship has taken on new meaning and the days when lakes could take care of themselves is past," Ritter says.

Purple loosestrife project

The Purple Loosestrife Biological Control Program is a citizen-based project that emphasizes using two safe purple beetle species that feed on loosestrife foliage, in combination with traditional methods, for controlling this invasive plant.

"Controlling this exotic will require a long-term effort involving many citizens," says Brock Woods, DNR and UW-Extension purple loosestrife biocontrol coordinator. The Purple Loosestrife Biocontrol Project has enlisted help from students, scouts, lake associations and individuals in raising the beetles for release since 1997. Over nine million of these beetles (with almost 95 percent coming from citizen cooperators) have been released at about 1,000 sites across Wisconsin.

Invasive species are causing a decline in wetlands plant diversity. © DNR Photo
Invasive species like purple loosestrife are causing a decline in wetlands plant diversity.

© DNR Photo

"Despite the large number of sites, we estimate that these still represent only two to three percent of all the wetland area within the state that is infested with purple loosestrife, so we still have a long way to go to control the plant," Woods says.

Traditional removal methods, such as hand pulling, burning and chemicals, are labor intensive and, though very useful for containing small populations, have had limited success for larger infestations.

"For every 100 beetles at the start, you can ultimately release up to 10,000," Woods says. "These insects are beginning to reverse the spread of purple loosestrife around the state, but we still need many more volunteer cooperators out there to make it work."

The Department of Natural Resources offers a free beetle starter population that may be picked up in Madison or shipped for a $30 donation. The program supplies most needed gear for free, if you agree to rear beetles at least two years. Additional materials like potting soil and cage supports cost $50 or less.

The program is primarily funded through the motor boat tax, though for each of the last two years the amount of support (money and in-kind contributions) from cooperators has added an amount equal to 50 percent of the funding base.

"Initial success has come much sooner than expected wherever beetles have been released," Woods says.

Annual field trips scheduled in spring and early summer introduce citizens to the purple loosestrife problem and, if possible, collect biocontrol beetles for control purposes. A list of these trips is available by e-mailing the program or by accessing the lists of outdoor offerings on the DNR website. The program loans out a short video that details the loosestrife problem, and the role and safeness of biocontrol.

The program also loans out walk-in cages to groups that have very large infested wetlands and want to produce 100,000 or more new beetles at these sites. The project's typical field time runs from April through July. For more information, contact Purple Loosestrife Project at DNR Research Center, 1350 Femrite Dr., Monona, WI 53716, or by e-mail at Brock Woods or call (608) 221-6349.

Superior Days

Special protection measures are needed for Lake Superior, says Mike Kroenke, University of Wisconsin Extension Lake Superior basin educator. "Superior is the largest and most pristine of the Great Lakes and represents 10 percent of the fresh water in the world. It is colder than Lake Michigan so it has been harder for aquatic invasives to become established but some are already here."

There is a growing concern for how these exotics will impact some unique geological and ecological areas such as Big Bay State Park.

To underscore their importance to the area, exotic species were identified as one of the top five issues at this year's Lake Superior Days, a series of meetings at the State Capitol comprised of more than 200 people from nine northern Wisconsin counties. Lake Superior Days have been held for 20 years to provide citizens the opportunity to meet with state officials to discuss their concerns and potential legislation.

This year, delegates spoke in favor of the DNR's biennial budget request that would provide funding for law enforcement at landings, increased aid to local communities and additional training of citizen volunteers to inspect boats at the landings.

"Exotics have done a lot of damage to the ecosystem, but also have done economic damage to our communities and that is getting legislative attention," Kroenke says.

Natasha Kassulke is associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources.