South Dakota is shifting zebra mussel defense

Capitol News Bureau

FORT PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota’s battle against zebra mussels and other invasive aquatic species will focus more on defending western reservoirs next year, according to state government’s top fisheries official.

John Lott laid out the 2021 plan Friday for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission.

He said the emphasis will be on protecting the large western reservoirs of Angostura, Pactola, Sheridan, Belle Fourche, and Shadehill. There haven’t been any confirmed discoveries of zebra mussels in them.

Five interns split time between the five reservoirs this summer, working four days per week from mid-May through mid-August. Lott said the presence will increase next year: Each reservoir will have an assigned crew next year, with four interns per crew, providing coverage seven days per week 10 hours per day.

“We’re doubling the number of interns,” Lott said. He added the caveat that he doesn’t know whether they’ll be able to hire that many.

As for the Missouri River and eastern South Dakota, Lott said he and his staff learned this year that there are too many lakes and too many roads for so few people to control the spread. The six inspection crews that worked roadsides and lake-access points in central and eastern South Dakota will be reduced to four next year.

“As it’s often said, the horse is out of the barn,” Lott said.

The commission has established a set of rules intended to identify and help counter aquatic invasive species, including a listing of specific containment waters.

Statewide, the nine crews altogether did more than 9,000 inspections from June through Labor Day weekend, with about 2.5% of the watercraft checked needing decontaminations. They worked 22 roadside locations and 44 lakeside locations.

The opportunity for one-on-one interactions was a bonus, according to Lott. “The forced engagement was very beneficial,” he said. Citations that law enforcement officers issued through last weekend of September totaled 262, with 135 warnings written.

The state Game, Fish and Parks Department spent about $421,000 through early September, including $70,000 for law enforcement and $212,000 for inspections crews. About one-fourth of the spending was subsidized through grants the department received.

Lott said there will be a stronger push for outside grants in 2021.

Travis Bies, a commissioner from Fairburn, asked about Missouri River tributaries, such as the White River that flows from western South Dakota. Lott said they generally don’t have many rocky surfaces for zebra mussels to attach.

As for wildlife moving transporting zebra mussels from one water body to another, Lott said he isn’t an AIS coordinator — the department doesn’t have one right now, he noted — but infant zebra mussels known as veligers are “pretty fragile” and the chances of being introduced to new waters through waterfowl probably were “pretty low.”

,Doug Sharp, a commissioner from Watertown, asked what the response should be to people who ask why South Dakota is fighting something that over time probably can’t be beaten.

Lott responded that zebra mussels won’t have a major impact on the fisheries but there will be big effects impacts to recreational boaters, irrigators and drinking water systems. He noted the western reservoirs have large users of their waters for agricultural purposes. “The slower the spread occurs, the better,” Lott said. Beach goers also could have their feet hurt by shells, he said.

Chairman Gary Jensen of Rapid City said some commissioners have discussed inviting someone from Minnesota to participate in the commission’s next meeting because efforts against invasive species have been better established there.

Lott said states are tapping different funding sources. States west of South Dakota charge an AIS fee on watercraft and use state governments’ general funds too, he said. Montana and Colorado have multi-millions dollar programs, he said.

Jensen asked about a state AIS stamp. GFP Secretary Kelly Hepler said the state habitat stamp that was added during the 2020 session made for difficult timing right now to request an AIS fee from the Legislature. “It’s got to be broader based than just the recreational user,” Hepler said.

Jensen asked about help from other state agencies. Hepler couldn’t remember the last time the state-level work group was together. Lott said the AIS work group hadn’t met since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March. He said the state Department of Transportation and state Department of Public Safety had been helpful in the inspection program.

But Lott added that he hadn’t pursued financial help from other state agencies very strongly because state government funding generally was “in low supply.” Jensen wondered about tapping some of the COVID-19 federal aid. Hepler said the December 30 deadline made that difficult.

Jensen asked about a concentrated education effort in western South Dakota. “I think that would be helpful too,” Jensen said. Lott said he expected an increased effort including partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.

Jon Locken, a commissioner from Bath, said, “I think we owe it to future generations to hold it off as long as we can.” Locken agreed with defending the western waters. He said another western state where he recently visited has a regulation allowing boats to be impounded forever if a zebra mussel was found.

Locken said he wasn’t suggesting an impoundment policy for South Dakota but said it would be a “game changer.”

Jensen said “most everyone” would know by now about the problem in South Dakota and a citation would be more appropriate than a warning.

“There’s very high awareness out there,” Lott said. Education has been under way eight to 10 years and inspections stations are helping with compliance, he said. Lott said next year they hope to better track boat-plug violations “I think we are going to be able to help slow that spread,” Lott said.

Robert Whitmyre, a commissioner from Webster, asked what other aquatic invasive species were at the top of Lott’s checklist. Lott said he learned this year from Minnesota that aquatic vegetation such as curlyleaf pondweed and milfoil are concerns because zebra mussels attach to them.

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