SDGFP panel sounds alarm on zebra mussels

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The discovery last week of zebra mussels in a northeastern lake led the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission on Friday to plan an emergency meeting later this month.

Fisheries chief John Lott wants to add Pickerel Lake and potentially several others in the same chain to South Dakota’s list of containment waters designated for management of aquatic invasive species.

The meeting will be during the week of July 27. Commissioners agreed to find a day that would work for as many as possible.

Zebra mussels clog water intakes and cause damage to submerged items. Their shells are sharp.

In South Dakota, they already are in several Missouri River reservoirs, the main river downstream from Gavins Point dam and some adjacent waters.

Lott suggested Waubay Lake also be put on the containment list and was open to potentially others. He said crews spent the past week looking for zebra mussels in other area lakes but found none.

Pickerel Lake is at the top of a chain of waters. Commissioner Robert Whitmyre of Webster said several more area lakes should be considered, such as Minnewasta, Little Rush, Rush and Blue Dog.

Lott said water could be treated where it flows out of Pickerel Lake. A permit would be needed from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“This is very concerning,” said commission chair Gary Jensen of Rapid City. “Because once these mussels are here, you can’t do anything with them.”

He said the discovery of zebra mussels at Lewis and Clark Lake above Gavins Point in 2015 was a sign of trouble. They were found in Lake Sharpe in 2019.

Governor Kristi Noem taped a special message after they were found in Lake Sharpe. Her office gathered various departments of state government to assemble a strategy. That produced a new state law this year giving conservation officers authority to stop traffic to check boats.

There are 10 boat-inspection crews working highways and boat ramps this summer.

“Really it’s a statewide problem the state as a whole needs to deal with. We tried to sound the alarm before there were mussels in South Dakota,” Jensen said.

Pickerel Lake marks the first time they’ve been identified in a northeastern county. “This is incredibly discouraging news,” Game, Fish and Parks Secretary Kelly Hepler said.

A key state fish hatchery is on Blue Dog Lake, Hepler said.

People who haven’t been affected by zebra mussels don’t have a strong desire to help, Lott said. Zebra mussels are very hard to keep out because they’re so small, and eastern South Dakota is complicated with many lakes and many roads, he added.

“I don’t think you can stop it,” Lott said. “I don’t think we can stop the spread, just do our best to slow it.”

Commissioner Doug Sharp of Watertown said South Dakota can’t afford to drop $10 million or more into the effort. He agreed more lakes need to be considered for the containment list.

Commissioner Travis Bies of Fairburn said he saw mandatory checkpoints in Wyoming and asked why the area’s full watershed isn’t being addressed.

“I think we’re doing what we can within the resources we have available to stop new introductions,” Lott said.

He explained that trying to completely keep them out would take a crew per ramp seven days a week, 10 hours a day, for 20 weeks, at $250,000 per crew. “The resources just don’t exist,” Lott said.

Jensen suggested re-distributing the “gold-standard” plan for containment to the newer commissioners to consider. Commissioners also should get information about the expenses Lewis and Clark faces, he said: “I think that’s more important than ever – what could this possibly cost us?”

Lott said a Montana researcher is developing a plan that Lott hoped would be available by end of 2020. He said his office has new versions of the cost estimates.

Jensen also suggested getting summaries from Montana, Wyoming and Minnesota about efforts in those states. “There’s a lot of information out there that everybody would be benefited from studying,” Jensen said.

Sharp asked whether GFP is “the only player in the solution.” He offered that other state departments need to be involved and the issue be managed through the governor’s office. “Where do we stand with that coordination effort with other departments?” Sharp asked.

Hepler replied that the governor assembled a meeting last year, leading to the 2020 legislation. “We can certainly sit down and talk to them,” Hepler said. He added, “We’ll try whatever we can do.” 

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