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Minnesota DNR ends invasive-species grants

Zebra mussels attached to a stick pulled out of an infested waterway. The Minnesota DNR is ending grants to local entities that have helped pay for aquatic invasive species inspections and education, citing a lack of funding. News Tribune/2012 photo.

Even as zebra mussels, starry stonewort weed and giant Asian carp invade more of Minnesota's waterways, the state Department of Natural Resources is eliminating aquatic invasive-species grants to local groups due to a budget shortfall.

In a recent email sent to local government agencies and nonprofit groups like lake associations that conduct invasive-species education and control efforts, the DNR announced it will not offer the grants for the summer 2018 or 2019 seasons.

The DNR had offered as much as $900,000 in grants as recently as 2013, but that number dwindled to just $200,000 this year and now nothing for 2018. The money had gone to pay for aquatic invasive-species public awareness projects, AIS control projects, watercraft inspections by DNR staff and grants to local government units to conduct watercraft inspections.

Most invasive-species infestations are believed to be caused by people who — usually unknowingly — move them from lake to lake in their boats, bait buckets or trailers.

The primary source of dedicated DNR funding for invasive-species work and grants — a $5 surcharge on boat licenses paid every three years — hasn't increased in 20 years, said Heidi Wolf, the DNR's invasive-species unit supervisor, while the Legislature has moved to increase most other license fees.

Most of the $200,000 last year went to local groups for projects to remove invasive species from their lakes. The lack of DNR grants in 2018 may mean fewer of those efforts, Wolf said, if the groups can't find other sources of funding.

The cuts also will mean 7,500 fewer hours of DNR staff time at local landings, and that could mean "there are groups who are not local government units who don't have a way to hire their own watercraft inspectors so they may end up with only volunteer time at the watercraft access or no watercraft inspection," Wolf noted.

Tom Weyandt, a former board member on the Bald Eagle Area Association in Ramsey County, said the DNR grant cutbacks in recent years reduced the number of days and hours inspectors were at the public landing looking for and educating people about invasive species — critical because the lake gets high numbers of transient boats from already infested lakes and rivers.

The cuts in past years already left "the lake pretty exposed," he said. "And with the 2018 DNR position it amounts to virtually no control at all."

Jeff Forester, executive director of the statewide group Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates, said he was disappointed that the DNR didn't make raising the $5 AIS surcharge during the 2017 legislative session. He said the DNR was abdicating its role in partnering with local groups to combat the spread of invasives.

"I am saddened that the DNR has decided to essentially end any meaningful effort to partner with lake associations and counties on AIS efforts, choosing instead to only have a permitting role. I think this is the wrong direction,'' Forester said. "These grants were being put to good use. ... Lake Associations cannot solve this problem alone, the Counties cannot solve it alone, the DNR cannot solve it alone. All need to be working together, and this is a big step in the wrong direction."

Wolf said the DNR needs the money raised by the surcharge for the agency's own activities such as inspecting lakes for new outbreaks and training boat inspectors. The DNR will also continue to fund conservation officer efforts such as roadside inspections for invasive-species law compliance.

According to the DNR's 2016 Aquatic Invasive Species program annual report the agency spends about $10 million annually on AIS efforts, nearly half of which is for inspections and enforcement. Of that about $1.4 milin came from the boat license surcharge, another $1.1 million comes from a $5 surcharge on non-resident fishing licenses and nearly $5 million comes from the Legislature's general fund.

"Our costs to keep our invasive species program keep going up and the funding just hasn't kept pace," Wolf told the News Tribune. "To maintain the basic things we have been doing we can't afford to give the grant money out any more."

Grants through counties still available

The DNR grant cuts do not impact the state money funneled directly to counties and on to local government, nonprofits and other groups to conduct invasive-species efforts. Since 2014 the Legislature has doled out $10 million annually to counties, bypassing the DNR entirely for hundreds of locally run invasive-species education, control and prevention efforts statewide.

Wolf said it's possible that groups formerly getting DNR grants could now get grants through their counties.

Since 2014 St. Louis County alone has doled out some $2.4 million of that state money to help battle invasive species. St. Louis County officials contracted with the University of Minnesota's Duluth-based Sea Grant program to develop an invasive-species plan and develop a method for groups to apply for the cash.

The state is awarding the money based on the number of public landings and trailer-parking spaces each county has. Of 87 counties, St. Louis County has the second-highest number of boat launch sites at 166 and the highest number of watercraft trailer parking spaces at 1,173.

The ongoing efforts to convince people to take appropriate steps seems to be helping slow the spread of invasives. Despite having more than 10,000 lakes and tens of thousands of boats moving between lakes and rivers in Minnesota — the state has 800,000 registered watercraft, not including visitors from other states — only 2 percent of all waterways in the state are infested with zebra mussels. Only 1 percent have spiny water fleas. About 5 percent have Eurasian watermilfoil. Officials want boaters to know that it's not inevitable that all lakes and rivers will be infested, at least not soon.

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