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Locals push DNR to move quickly : FEAR ZEBRA MUSSELS FROM PELICAN

TERRY KALIL of rural Detroit Lakes is one of several people who have been pushing hard for action to keep zebra mussels out of area lakes.

They say you don't know what you've got until it's gone, and some area lakes organizations are afraid local residents could soon be singing that old tune, as aquatic invasive species continue their rapid spread into local waters.

"These lakes are our livelihood that keep us financially alive because of summertime business," said Vice President of the Becker County Coalition of Lakes Associations Terry Kalil. "And if boats get clogged up with invasive plants, fish die off and the beaches are so full of tiny, sharp zebra mussel shells that you can't even walk on them, who's going to keep coming here?"

Kalil and fellow lakes activist Barb Halbakken-Fischburg are the squeaky wheels hoping to get the oil, as they continue to apply public pressure on the Minnesota DNR to "either do something about this or get out of the way so that somebody else can."

The DNR has, in fact, recently ramped up its efforts to combat invasive species after successfully lobbying lawmakers for more resources and tougher laws, but Kalil says not only are they a day late and a dollar short, but the organization continues to move at a snail's pace in implementing the new tactics.

"They're always planning; they're always going to; everything is always in the works; but while all these big plans are being talked about, zebra mussels keep right on reproducing at a rate of about one million eggs per female in a summer."

Experts say zebra mussels and invasive plants become so thick, they choke out native wildlife, putting local fishing and tourism industry in jeopardy.

"This is urgent and everybody has a stake in it," Kalil said.

Right now there are no zebra mussels in the Detroit Lakes area, but Pelican Lake is badly infested with them, and the fear is boaters will unknowingly transfer the microscopic babies into healthy waters, causing economic havoc.

The DNR already has 100 watercraft inspectors at select Minnesota lakes, but they say plans to "ramp up their inspection program" are being held back by the unknown Minnesota budget and a possible shutdown.

"We are hiring around 20 new inspectors, which will have more authority to enforce compliance, but we are forced to wait until we have a budget before we can hire," said Luke Skinner, supervisor of the DNR's Invasive Species Program.

COLA, along with workers with the Pelican River Watershed District, are not waiting.

The organizations are working together to hire and train over 30 inspectors to sit at local accesses locally in order to enforce decontamination procedures.

The group has $8,000 to cover four lakes all summer (Detroit, Long, Cotton and Tamarac), but not only are their times and locations designated by the DNR, their training must also be conducted through the state agency.

"Their (DNR's) training manuals are outdated," said Kalil, "And they don't even have the current information on which lakes are infested with what."

Skinner says they're working on it and just need time to work.

"The new law was just passed at the end of May ... it takes time to ramp up additional efforts and to put into place good, safe policies and procedures."

Tera Guetter with the PRWD says the DNR and legislators have had time, since zebra mussels became a problem in 2009.

Anglers who came off Pelican Lake after a fishing tournament this year were absolutely shocked about what they had seen happen on the lake.

"The cabbage weed plants had 150 zebra mussels attached to them," said Guetter, "Scuba divers have told us the bottom is covered with them, so you will see a dramatic change in the fish population there in the next few years if this trend continues and we don't get some decontamination units and more awareness out there."

The DNR does have three new decontamination units designed to sit at public accesses, which are essentially high-pressure washers, capable of spraying 140-degree water at 3,000 pounds per square inch.

Kalil and Halbakken-Fischburg are frustrated that not only does the DNR prohibit them from using the units at local DNR accesses (due to liability issues), but they are frustrated that the DNR isn't doing much with them either.

"At present, not one DNR employee has completed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Watercraft decontamination training," said Kalil.

Skinner says their plan is to start testing out the units soon, followed by training, then forming a plan as to where they should be and when.

"We're volunteers with no budget, and we're getting things done -- It's time to stop the excuses. Stop blaming the budget and potential government shutdown," said Kalil, "Minnesota lakes are at risk. What's the cost of continuing to do nothing?"

Meanwhile, the PRWD has contracted researchers from Mississippi State University, Concordia and the Army Corps of Engineers to find out what they can about flowering rush, the nuisance plant threatening Detroit Lake.

They have a warning for Detroit Lakes area residents -- that story is coming up in Wednesday's Tribune.