Karl Koenig grew up in Becker County and loves to fish, year round. So he knows the area lakes well and feels the loss keenly when aquatic invasive plants and animals change the biology of those lakes.
That makes Koenig a good fit for the job he has held for the past six years -- aquatic invasive species coordinator with the Becker Soil and Water Conservation District.
Koenig grew up on Buffalo Lake near Richwood and was in the final sixth grade class before Washington School was closed. After graduating from Detroit Lakes High School, he moved to Missoula, Mont. -- as much as anything for the great fly fishing.
“I always had it in my mind to live in western Montana to fish,” he said. “It’s the epicenter of fly fishing -- all the big Montana trout rivers. Montana is amazing. It’s a hard place to find work and make a living, but beautiful, beautiful scenery.”
Montana was good to Koenig: He earned a bachelor’s degree in resource conservation from the University of Montana, and he met his wife, Laura, while they were both serving AmeriCorps in the Montana Conservation Corps in 2008.
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They moved to Detroit Lakes in 2012, when Koenig took a job with the DNR in Otter Tail County when the agency expanded its aquatic invasive species program. He spent three years in the DNR’s watercraft inspection program, before taking the AIS coordinator job he holds today.
Laura now works at Bremer Bank in Detroit Lakes, and they have two daughters, Lumen, 5, and Amara, 2. Like other parents of young children, it’s been challenging at times juggling work and home life during COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
Koenig’s position was created after the state got serious about funding the fight against aquatic invasives. Since 2014, the state has kicked in $10 million a year, divided among counties based on the number of public lake accesses and the number of parking spots at those accesses. Becker County will receive $342,585 this year out of that $10 million, and the county itself kicked in about $8,700 towards the aquatic invasives program this year, Koenig said.
“In our area, zebra mussels are the aquatic invasive species that have spread the most to the most new lakes in the time I’ve been here,” he said. Those little mussels multiply rapidly and eat by filtering the nutrients out of the water, leaving the water clearer, but leaving some native species struggling to survive.
Zebra mussels change the ecology of a lake, and that affects which fish species thrive, which ones fall, and also means anglers have to adjust on where to catch those fish, he said. The walleyes, in other words, very likely aren't where they used to be before zebra mussels invaded.
Watercraft inspectors are important in the effort to keep zebra mussels out of uninfected lakes, and to that end the Becker County Aquatic invasive species program spent $247,000 last year, a big piece of its nearly $379,000 budget, on payroll, unemployment insurance and workers comp insurance for watercraft inspectors, and field supplies.
Flowering rush has been an unusual success story in the fight against aquatic invasives. Once the scourge of the Detroit Lakes City Beach, the reedy plants have been beaten back to the point where the city didn’t even apply for its usual $4,000 eradication grant this year, because a recent biological survey determined it wasn’t needed, Koenig said.
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“To get to the point where they say we can’t find it (flowering rush) out here on the beach, is very unusual,” he said.
Like catching dandelions early before they take over the yard, the best way to save a lake from invasive plants is to nip the takeover in the bud, he said.
That means monitoring lakes for early signs of starry stonewort, curly leaf pondweed and other undesirables. To that end, biologically-savvy scuba divers check for invasives around the public accesses of Becker County lakes considered most vulnerable to a takeover.
“My concern is that the next invasive, like starry stonewort, can’t be controlled with herbicides like flowering rush, and the control methods being tested are expensive,” Koenig said. “Finding it early offers a much better chance of control than if it’s already widespread.”
Management and invasive species monitoring by scuba divers cost about $12,000 last year. Other costs include decontamination equipment, fuel, maintenance and storage (nearly $11,000), insurance and office supplies (about $9,000) and outreach and education costs of about $6,000. The second highest budget item was about $73,000 for office space, cell data, vehicle maintenance, fuel and training.
Prevention is by far the cheapest and most effective way to keep invasives out of the lakes, and Koenig urged everyone to keep an eye out for unusual plant growth, and to get serious about cleaning plants off motors and boats when going from lake to lake.
“I just hope people see this problem is bigger than just zebra mussels and put some effort into these aquatic plants,” he said.
Other outreach efforts include an interactive map on Becker County’s website showing zebra mussel, curly-leaf pondweed and flowering rush infestations.
Also a 30-second commercial that aired May through August on “Linder’s Angling Buzz,” a TV show on Fox Sports North. Eighteen counties shared the cost of that commercial sponsorship.
Koenig has traveled a lot and done a lot of fishing, but he’s come to believe that there’s no better fishing than in Minnesota lakes country. You can go from large lake to small lake, go after all different sorts of game fish, catch fish in winter and summer, and in general just really enjoy the sport in all its aspects, he said.
And he hopes others who love the lakes will join him in trying to keep the aquatic invasives out, so people can enjoy the lakes as they have been for generations.
“It was a record year. We saw 27,500 boat inspections, the highest number of inspections we’ve ever recorded,” he told the Becker County Board recently. “It was a busy summer for us, but we saw good compliance and it's getting better.”