Passion and commitment of volunteers help protect lakes in western Vilas County

Emily Heald, Water Program Coordinator for the North Lakeland Discovery Center

In 2017, almost 200 volunteers in western Vilas County put in about 1,500 hours of time spent monitoring for aquatic invasive species, reviewing management plans, completing Clean Boats Clean Waters surveys at boat landings, and monitoring lake levels. It has all been a part of the 7-year partnership between the North Lakeland Discovery Center (a nonprofit environmental education center) and nearby towns of Manitowish Waters, Boulder Junction, and Winchester, as well as the Manitowish Waters Lakes Association and Winchester Town Lakes Committee. Our work consists of obtaining WDNR funding to create management plans on 24 lakes (spread over the years), with each project utilizing town financial donations and volunteer support for the matching funds required by the grants.

A proud group of folks from Winchester celebrate the CBCW program at a boat landing barbeque.

“We are hopeful that these projects will give us the knowledge and tools to ensure that we can prevent any potential invasive species contamination in the future through education and diligence by our lake property owners, as well as the recreational boaters and fishermen who visit the lakes.” (Gary Engstrom, Rock Lake)

For each project, multiple AIS identification trainings are held to give volunteers the skills to go out on their own time to monitor their lakes for AIS. Each project also holds at least two meetings open to riparian owners where results of studies are presented, and attendees learn about lake ecology.

We are creating a culture with lake property owners to be aware of, and routinely monitor, their lake and its environs.”(Rolf Ethun, Hiawatha Lake)

Some volunteers felt they were born into these projects from living on lakes their whole lives, while others join the cause through lake associations, after retirement, or by hearing about it through friends. However the sparked interest occurs, all volunteers overwhelmingly agree that it is “exciting and rewarding to see all the townships and lake associations work together” (Karen Dixon, Manitowish River) and “to see how everyone in the community has pulled together to solve the AIS problem” (Bob Becker, President of Manitowish Waters Lakes Association).

A lesson learned from this partnership? A little education can go a long way in “turning dock-loungers into caring citizen scientists-some a little and others a great deal” (Rolf Ethun, Hiawatha Lake).

Thank you to ALL of the volunteers who work together on these projects protect lakes and rivers.

Now, I’m hoping that working on invasive species issues I might be able to help leave an area be in better shape than I found it” (Greg Holt, Benson Lake).

Volunteers Al and Paul endure freezing temperature to monitor lake levels.


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Volunteers Defend Silver Lake

Paul Skawinski, UW-Extension Lakes

In, on, and around Silver Lake near Oconomowoc in the Village of Summit, Waukesha County, volunteers from the Silver Lake Management District are making a big difference. Through statewide programs like Clean Boats, Clean Waters and the Citizen Lake Monitoring Network, volunteers are collecting water samples, watching for aquatic invasive species, helping visitors check their boats for AIS before and after using Silver Lake, and removing Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM) through coordinated and carefully executed hand-pulling  events using snorkelers and SCUBA divers.

Silver Lake uses snorkelers and SCUBA divers in a coordinated effort to remove Eurasian watermilfoil from the lake. Credit – Paul Skawinski

Nearly 120 total hours were spent by eight volunteers staffing the boat landing on Silver Lake in 2017. The District also received a Clean Boats, Clean Waters (CBCW)  grant from the Wisconsin DNR, which provided 210 paid hours of watercraft inspectors at the landing. Invasive Species Committee Chair  Jessica Rice coordinates lake monitoring activities and enters the data into the state’s Surface Water Integrated Monitoring System (SWIMS) database. Her husband Nate Rice, Secretary of the Silver Lake Management District, discovered an unwelcome visitor at the lake’s boat landing in 2016 while conducting CBCW watercraft inspection and boater education. Nate discovered a fragment of a suspicious plant hanging from a boat trailer that was about to launch into Silver Lake. He removed this fragment, photographed it, and sent it for identification to Brad Steckart, Waukesha County Aquatic Invasive Species Coordinator, and Paul Skawinski, Statewide Coordinator of the Wisconsin Citizen Lake Monitoring Network. Brad and Paul agreed that the plant was starry stonewort, a prohibited invasive species impacting other lakes in the area, but NOT Silver Lake. Thanks to Nate being present at the landing, the imminent introduction of starry stonewort into Silver Lake was blocked. Frequent monitoring of the lake in 2017 discovered no evidence of starry stonewort established near the boat landing or elsewhere.

The District also collects information on water clarity, total phosphorus, chlorophyll-A, dissolved oxygen, and aquatic invasive species in Silver Lake. Again led by Jessica and Nate, this information helps track changes in the lake’s water quality. Monitoring the aquatic invasive species in the lake, especially EWM, allows the team to map the distribution of these species and execute targeted removal efforts. In lieu of herbicide treatments for EWM control, the District uses volunteer SCUBA teams and support watercraft to carefully remove these plants from the lake. In this way, they selectively remove the invasive plants and cause minimal disturbance to the lake and other nearby species. One former area of EWM infestation is now clear of the plant as a result of these manual removal efforts, and native plants have colonized the space instead.

Hundreds of lake volunteers across Wisconsin monitor water clarity trends by using a Secchi disc. Credit – Amy Kowalski.

Supported by the Wisconsin DNR, the Clean Boats, Clean Waters program, the Citizen Lake Monitoring Network, and the Waukesha County Aquatic Invasive Species program, Silver Lake’s volunteers are strong and committed to protecting their special lake. They remain vigilant and ready to detect changes in water quality or the arrival of aquatic invasive species. Unwelcome species do not go unnoticed, nor do the efforts of this amazing volunteer group. Silver Lake is in good hands.

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Hey anglers, be on the lookout for the fish no one wants to catch: round gobies

Post by Jenny Seifert, UWEX Aquatic Invasive Species Outreach Specialist

Round gobies are ferocious little bait stealers. For this reason, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is calling on anglers to help the agency monitor whether these invasive fishes are spreading through the state’s waterways – if you happen to catch what you think is a goby, report it to WDNR.

Round gobies are an invasive fish known to steal bait and harm fisheries. Photo by Paul Skawinski

“We know gobies bite easily, so angling is a good way to capture them,” says Kendall Kamke, WDNR’s Oshkosh fisheries team supervisor, who oversees goby detection and control efforts in the Winnebago lake system.

The goby’s appetite for worms and other bait isn’t the only mischievousness that makes them an unwanted invasive species. They tend to eat the eggs and young of native fish and outcompete natives in their own habitat, thus threatening the existence of desirable fish and your enjoyment of catching them.

If you fish in the Winnebago system, look for this sign (and this fish!).

Since there is only so much the WDNR can do with minnow traps and nets, the help of anglers is critical to tracking whether these little bait snatchers are spreading throughout the state.

“This is our second year asking anglers to be our eyes and ears on the waters,” says Kamke.

A specific area of concern is the Lake Winnebago basin, where a couple of closed locks are the only things blocking the gobies’ passage from the Fox River into Lake Winnebago, an invasion to which would give them access to 17 percent of the state’s inland waters. If you fish in this area, you may have already seen the signs recruiting your help.

So what should you do if you catch a fish you suspect to be a round goby? First, look for their trademark features: fused-together pelvic fins that look sort of like a suction cup on their belly and bulging, frog-like eyes.

If your specimen has that resemblance, then report it to the WDNR using the online goby reporting tool, which you can access right there on the water, assuming you have a smart phone and decent cellular service. The tool walks you through a few simple steps that should take just a few short minutes to complete:

  • A mapping feature will help you report your location, an important piece of information that will help the WDNR follow up on your discovery, need be.
  • Take and upload a couple of photos of your specimen, one from the side and one of the belly to try to capture its distinguishing fused fin and frog eyes.
  • Be sure to include your name and phone number in case WDNR staff needs to contact you for further information.

Regardless of whether you report your possible goby on the scene or at home, the best thing to do, if possible, is take the specimen home with you in a plastic bag and bring it to your local DNR office to have it identified.

Fortunately, all of the reported goby sightings from Lake Winnebago have so far been misidentifications.

While the goby is a fish we hope you’ll never catch, your vigilance when fishing can be a big help in the state’s efforts to detect and control these bait thieves.

And, no matter what you catch, don’t forget to take the precautions to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species before you leave the water: remove plants and debris from your boats and equipment, drain livewells and equipment and never move plants or live animals away from the waterbody.

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Aquatic invasive species detection goes CSI with eDNA

Post by Jenny Seifert, UWEX Aquatic Invasive Species Outreach Specialist

Peering into a bucket of mud, Maureen Ferry felt like she was looking for a needle in a haystack. That needle was the New Zealand mud snail, a teeny tiny invasive species that was discovered in Black Earth creek , and she and fellow WDNR employees were trying to confirm its presence in the creek.

Eventually, their eyes adjusted, and they realized the bucket was not actually filled with mud, but innumerable mud snails!

New Zealand mud snails are teeny tiny (this dime is normal sized, we swear), which makes using eDNA technology an easier way to detect them. Credit: Paul Skawinski

Hard-to-detect aquatic invasive species like the mud snails are one example of why some resource managers are raving about a new(ish) technology that helps them sniff out unwanted exotic critters: environmental DNA, or eDNA.

Much like the forensics used to solve crimes, eDNA allows managers to use genetic evidence to trace the tracks of an invasive species in a lake or stream, giving them clues as to whether the species is guilty or innocent of an invasion.

“All living things shed DNA, and we can pick it up in the environment,” explains Ferry, who is the statewide aquatic invasive species monitoring coordinator for the WDNR.

They pick up this DNA by collecting water samples from sites they think a certain invasive could be hiding and then extracting all of the genetic material floating around in the water. Using a chemical reaction, they can screen the DNA soup for genetic markers specific to the suspected invader. If the genetic markers appear, it tips managers as to whether the species may have been at the scene and how many of them there might be.

The beauty of this technology is the improved efficiency it gives managers in detecting invasive species. While it won’t help them actually find the needles, it gives them a lead on where in the haystack to look for them, so they can better target their traditional sampling methods, which are otherwise more time consuming.

“It’s a really powerful tool that can help us make better decisions about how we manage our natural resources,” says Chris Merkes, a geneticist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) who is involved in a partnership with WDNR and the UW-Stevens Point Cooperative Fish Unit to develop and use eDNA technology to monitor the New Zealand mud snail and another troublesome invader, the round goby.

In fact, this month WDNR and USGS will test out a new eDNA tool to investigate whether the round goby, an invasive fish, has moved into Lake Winnebago. It has already invaded the lower Fox River down stream of Lake Winnebago, and WDNR is trying to prevent it from getting into Lake Winnebago. The concern is, an invasion to the lake could give it access to 17 percent of the state’s inland waterways. So this new eDNA tool could help WDNR make more efficient use of its resources by indicating areas where fisheries managers should look for round goby.

The cool thing about this upgraded tool is, once tested, you won’t need to be an expert geneticist to use it. Developed by USGS, it’s a simplified and portable DNA detection kit that allows nearly anyone to perform the genetic testing anywhere. All data detectives will need is a cup of water and an hour to get a reading of whether the goby’s DNA is present or absent from the water.

Volunteers process samples during the test run of a portable eDNA kit for Asian Carp. A similar kit, but designed for the round goby, will be tested this month. Credit: USGS.

The hope is, down the line, the simpler kits will make it easy for citizens to get involved in round goby surveillance in the Winnebago basin, which will put more detectives on the case and make it easier for the DNR to monitor the nuisance fish and make effective decisions.

But even if the eDNA technique detects a species’ genetic material, the suspect is still innocent until proven guilty. There can be red herrings like false negatives or positives, and sometimes genetic evidence is not enough to confirm whether the species is actually in the waterbody – that DNA could be merely a remnant left in the belly of a predator, for example. Sleuthing actual specimens from the lake or stream with traditional sample methods, like fish shocking and catching them in nets, are the only way to close a case.

“It’s a complicated equilibrium that we’re trying to assess, and there’s no finite way to understand exactly how many organisms are in a system at any given time,” says Merkes.

Shortcomings aside, Merkes is excited about the technology’s potential. He thinks it could someday help natural resource agencies improve the conservation of native species.

For example, managers could use it to monitor changes in fish populations at the molecular level, which could inform fishing guidelines, or they could use it to study lake microbiomes to determine their vulnerability to invasive species or diseases.

“Any time we can gain information about a natural system without disrupting it is a great thing,” says Merkes, referring to the non-invasive nature of the mere water sample needed for eDNA as another perk of the technology, compared to trapping methods.

As for the New Zealand mud snail, while it is established Black Earth Creek and Badger Mill Creak in southwest Wisconsin, eDNA evidence collected by WDNR has shown the snail is, so far, innocent of invading other sites in Wisconsin.

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