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AIS deputies on patrol

Becker County AIS deputy sheriff Darwin Nundahl looks under a boat coming off Big Detroit Lake at the south public access Friday morning. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

Flowering rush. Curly leaf pondweed. Zebra mussels. Is there anyone in the area who hasn’t heard of one or all of these invasive species? Not likely.

Over the last few years, Becker County, Detroit Lakes, Pelican River Watershed District and lake associations have increased the education, awareness, treatment and research of these invasives, becoming one of the leading counties in the state in the fight of AIS.

Now the state is stepping in and helping that fight even more. This year, about $4.5 million was divided between counties throughout the state specifically to fight AIS. Next year, and for years to come, that will increase to $10 million.

Receiving funding

The distribution of the $4.5 million was based on the number of public lake accesses on each lake in the county and the number of parking spaces at those accesses. Becker County has about 97 accesses.

That figures out to $143,610 this year for the county. Next year, and subsequent years after that until the state stops contributing, the county will receive $319,135 a year.

Becker County has been contributing $40,000 a year.

“The AIS program is evolving,” Environmental Services Administrator Steve Skoog said.

Skoog and his team have been in charge of the education side of AIS — that means manuals, T-shirts, key rings, speaking engagements, news releases and other literature.

“We provide education and hand out materials to anyone in the county that would hand it out,” he said.

“This new funding changed it quite a bit,” he added. “This put the county into a central role in AIS.”

Not only can the county continue with outreach, it can “expand infrastructure and how we handle AIS.”

That most likely will include decontamination units for lake accesses. It can also mean helping pay for treatment of the lakes and helping with the Red River Water Basin. They are also working with townships, lake associations and the watershed district.

Skoog said he will bring recommendations to the county board, but ultimately, it will be the commissioners’ decision of how the money will be spread.

“We’ll work to minimize the risk or stop the spread of AIS.”

Sheriff Kelly Shannon said that while the decontamination unit will be a good investment — it costs around $20,000 for a portable one — he’s hoping some of the funds go to enforcement as well.

When three part-time AIS officers were hired, spare squad cars were turned into AIS cars, which in return, shorted the number of backup vehicles for patrol when one is broken down, getting repairs or even getting the oil changed.

Skoog said that working with lake associations and the general public is important because homeowners know their lakes better than anyone else.

“We will prioritize where we put dollars in the form of people on accesses,” he said.

“As the population grows, the risk grows and it’s here to stay,” he said of infestations.

AIS officers

“The compliance is phenomenal,” Shannon said of boaters helping protect the lakes.

The sheriff said that as far as he knows, Becker County is the only county in the state to employ three officers dedicated to AIS. Two officers were hired last summer, and one more this summer.

There are also two full-time Boat and Water deputies that help with AIS enforcement.

Though the three part-time officers are dedicated to AIS, if patrol deputies see violations, they are authorized to pull people over and enforce AIS laws as well.

The AIS officers spend their days at lake accesses, checking fishermen and their boats for compliance. They are checking for weeds hanging from trailers and making sure plugs are out of the boat prior to hauling.

“Overall, the vast majority of people are accepting to it. They ask questions,” Shannon said. “There are very, very few violations.”

Boat and Water Deputy Adam Douglas said that most of the people coming to the lakes know about the AIS threats and infestations and are happy to see enforcement at the accesses.

Some out-of-state people may not know why law enforcement is there, but soon learn and are just as cooperative.

“The people I deal with like it,” he said of officers being at the accesses.

The officers go through a checklist of what they are inspecting, including live wells being emptied, plugs being pulled when the boats come out of the lake, and in place when entering, coolers, anchors and ropes and trailers.

If people have bait, they have to dump out the lake water and put in fresh water as well.

They also question what lakes the people have come from. If it’s a known invested lake, more precautions are taken.

“We check out anyone who comes in and out,” Douglas said of how they patrol the lake accesses. What access they pick during any given day is a “hit or miss” process.

He said that Detroit Lake and Big Cormorant Lake are the two big, heavily used ones in the area and get patrolled the most, but officers drive around and check lakes throughout the county.

Thursday through Sunday are obviously the busiest days, but they can be seen throughout the week checking boats and educating people on AIS.

Early mornings bring more fishermen, and late afternoons and evenings bring out the pontoons.

“I’m very happy with the compliance from people. We have very few violations,” Shannon said.

Besides the county officers at the accesses, some lake associations have either hired workers or found volunteers to man the accesses.

They can’t issue citations, but they do help the officers as “eyes and ears” at the accesses, Douglas said.

The lake association helpers are also AIS certified — the DNR offers a class on a fairly regular basis — and they help by letting the officers know how many boaters are on the lakes, if there are repeat offenders at the accesses, and other information of interest.

With the increased visibility of officers and those checking boats, “it has to make a difference,” Shannon said.

He said that he can see the program growing even more in the future.

“The board (of county commissioners) is very aggressive and motivated with this,” he said.

“It’s a good program. It’s obviously working out there.”

“We are out there and paying attention,” Douglas said.

“Help protect our lakes because they are important to our livelihood.”               

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.