DNR adds more dogs added to sniff out zebra mussels as efforts ramp up

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DULUTH—"Brady" looks like any other law enforcement officer of his rank — an eager, aggressive disposition, a long snout and wagging tail.

But unlike most of his fellow K-9 officers, Brady doesn't search for illegal narcotics or bombs. The 6-year-old golden retriever mix sniffs for zebra mussels.

Brady's partner, Minnesota Conservation Officer Julie Siems, was showing off Brady's skills Thursday at the Pike Lake boat landing outside Duluth. Siems hid a rock encrusted with zebra mussels in the splashwell of a fishing boat.

It took Brady one loop around the boat before he honed in on the spot. He jumped up on the boat, spotted the source of the smell and quickly sat down, waiting for his reward — a scratch on the ear and a chance to play with his tennis ball.

"His reward is his ball. He works for the ball," Siems said, noting that Brady, once a rescue dog, also is trained to sniff out hidden firearms, ammunition and venison, "so he doesn't get bored in the fall and winter."

The effort comes one week before Minnesota's walleye fishing opener, the unofficial start of the annual summer invasion of lakes and rivers. Brady is one of four zebra mussel-sniffing dogs now in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources stable of resources in the ongoing, stepped-up effort to slow the spread of aquatic invasive species within the state.

Brady and Siems patrol boat landings, especially near infested waterways. But they also staff DNR checkpoints through the summer where every boat and watercraft moving on a roadway is pulled over and inspected.

It's a violation of Minnesota law to move invasive species out of an infested lake, to move weeds that could carry invasive species or to move water from one lake or river to another. Boaters are required to drain their live wells, bait buckets and bilge (and remove their bilge plugs when on the road) as well as make sure no weeds are hanging from the trailer when they leave the landing.

If Brady finds a hidden zebra mussel or two, Siems usually issues a warning to the violator, along with an educational speech and directions on how to sterilize the watercraft to kill the unwanted hitchhikers.

"But if it's so obvious that I can see them, and the boat owner should have seen them, then we'll issue tickets," Siems said.

The civil penalty can reach $500, plus fines.

It's not just boats but also docks that are moved as well as trailers, diving equipment, fishing tackle and even waders that can carry unwanted species from lake to lake. Boats that have remained in an infested lake or river for 24 hours or more are the highest risk to move invaders. Some types of sailboats, pontoon boats and wake boats are especially troublesome because large areas that hold water are inaccessible, almost impossible to clean and dry.

Still, the ongoing effort to convince people to take appropriate steps is working, said Doug Jensen, aquatic invasive species expert for Minnesota Sea Grant.

Despite having more than 10,000 lakes and tens of thousands of boats moving between lakes and rivers in Minnesota — the state has 800,000 registered watercraft, not including visitors from other states — only 2 percent of all waterways in the state are infested with zebra mussels. Only 1 percent have spiny water fleas. About 5 percent have Eurasan water milofil.

The rest remain invasive-free, and the DNR and Minnesota Sea Grant want to keep it that way. They want boaters to know that it's not inevitable that all lakes and rivers will be infested, at least not anytime soon.

"We know that a combination of regulations, enforcement, education and outreach are working,'' Jensen said. "So we keep up the message."

How to stop aquatic hitchhikers

State law requires boaters to:

• Clean aquatic plants and prohibited invasive species from watercraft.

• Drain lake or river water and keep drain plugs out during transport.

• Dispose of unwanted bait in the trash, not in the water.

It's also recommended that boaters:

• Spray boat and trailer with high-pressure water.

• Rinse boat and trailer with very hot water (120 degrees for two minutes, or 140 degrees for 10 seconds).

• If hot or pressurized water isn't available, dry boat and equipment for at least five days before moving to a different water body.

More information is available at mndnr.gov/AIS.