Area wildlife group educates about aquatic invasive species

By Christiaan Tarbox
ECM Sun Newspapers

As summer rolls on and residents are fishing and boating on the lake, phantom aquatic menaces are threatening to damage lakes and streams on a massive scale.

Zebra mussels are one of the major aquatic invasive species plaguing Minnesota lakes and rivers. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Forever

Zebra mussels are one of the major aquatic invasive species plaguing Minnesota lakes and rivers. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Forever

The Brooklyn Center-based nonprofit Wildlife Forever seeks to put an end to these seafaring threats via educational outreach on an equally widespread scope.

“We were founded by the North American Hunting Club and the North American Fishing Club, and we’re the conservation arm of those two entities,” said Wildlife Forever Conservation Director Pat Conzemius. “It started in Minnetonka, but our national headquarters (is) here in Brooklyn Center. We’re a national organization representing over a million conservation-minded folks.”

For more than 20 years, the 501(c)(3) organization has devoted itself to educating children and adults alike nationwide about the importance of the conservation of North American wildlife, providing funding to more than 1,000 projects in all 50 states and Canada via local conservation agencies, game and fishing commissions and federal forest and wildlife departments. The organization has won dozens of awards and commendations for its efforts, including the 2010 Conservation Achievement Award from the American Fisheries Society, four Telly Awards for its televised segments on invasive species, and the Harvard Kennedy School’s 2010 Bright Ideas Award.

Aside from an office in Washington, D.C., Wildlife Forever operates primarily in Brooklyn Center, and its auditing history is proof of the organization’s success.

“You try to maximize your dollars-to-mission,” Conzemius said. “We get audited every year, and last year our dollars-to-mission were 93 percent to mission. We’re pretty proud of that; that’s a pretty high standard that a lot of other organizations can’t meet up to.”

Wildlife Forever promotes two main programs. One is the State-Fish Art program, which for the last 16 years has engaged students across the state to learn about aquatic preservation via art and writing.

“It really teaches kids about connecting with nature, getting back to engage with the outdoors through conservation (and) the arts,” Conzemius said. “State-Fish Art’s really about drawing art, learning about art, learning about fish and also about invasive species and … what to do about invasive species.”

Lately, however, Wildlife Forever has been heavily promoting its other signature program, Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers, a public awareness campaign designed to inform the masses about aquatic invasive species.

“We got on board with the campaign about eight years ago because we really saw a need to reach out and engage hunters and anglers with invasive species prevention,” Conzemius said. “It’s a 12-year-old campaign developed in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We’re the operational lead for that national public service campaign … to promote consistent messaging, marketing, branding and awareness.”

Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers raises awareness via extensive billboard and signage campaigns, educational tips on properly cleaning boating and fishing equipment, and brand marketing in conjunction with local agencies, such as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and national groups, such as the National Park Service.

The two biggest and more recent threats to Minnesota waters have been the zebra mussel and the Asian carp, although Conzemius stresses that even though the latter has no known breeding population in the state, rogue fish still manage to emerge from southern states via the Mississippi River. The zebra mussel, originally indigenous to Russia, is notorious for damaging harbors, ships and even water treatment plants.

According to the Center for Invasive Species Research at the University of California, Riverside, the cost of managing the population of zebra mussels at treatment plants and other water-based facilities costs the United States upward of $500 million a year.

“We’re seeing quite a bit of damage already because of the zebra mussel,” Conzemius said. “Some of the most notable differences are the change of water clarity. Water clarity’s sometimes a good thing, but that doesn’t mean the water’s clean. So when the water’s clear like that, you’ll get greater algae blooms.

“You’ll also get weed growth in much deeper regions of the lake,” Conzemius continued. “So with more weed growth, you get competition for other non-native aquatic plants that are there.”

Weeds are also one of the more prolific ways zebra mussels manage to invade lakes and streams. Aside from being transported in water by way of bilge or bait containers, they can attach themselves to weeds caught on boat motors or trailer hitches.

Conzemius said that the method to fighting invasive species is rather simple: clean, drain and dry.

“That’s the backbone of the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers program,” Conzemius said.

The clean, drain and dry initiative includes the following steps:

• Clean the boat and equipment every time they are pulled out of the water access.

• Pull the boat’s drain plug, which is legally required whenever a boat is transported on public highways, and drain the boat’s motor.

• Dry the hull, motor and any equipment that made contact with the lake water.

So far, the program has been successful in educating the public, Conzemius said.

“We’ve been doing surveys in conjunction with Minnesota Sea Grant and some of our other partners for a number of years,” Conzemius said. “Year after year, our survey results show that when the brand is presented to anglers, they recognize the brand and they also recognize what to do to prevent an invasive species. So we know the campaign works, we know the brand works, we know we have a strong brand, and we’re really working with anglers to recognize it and to follow those prevention steps.”

Now that recently passed Minnesota legislation has granted $10 million to counties to combat aquatic invasive species, Wildlife Forever will continue to team with various organizations to spread the word and combat the pests even more aggressively.

“It’s really a partnership effort, not only with the Minnesota DNR, but a lot of other local groups here in Minnesota,” Conzemius said. “We are a very strong proponent of partnerships, and it’s really how we’ve been able to maintain and build and grow as an organization over the years.”

For more information on Wildlife Forever and its Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers initiative, visit wildlifeforever.org.

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