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Lakes specialist helps fight spread of invasive species

August 11, 2010 | 08:46 AM
Williams Bay — Audrey Greene is the lady with the wrap-around sunglasses and dark blue T-shirt that reads: "Clean Boats, Clean Waters.

She's turning up at public boat launches in Walworth County reminding boaters and all boating sports enthusiasts that it's their responsibility to stop the spread of invasive species.

On a bright Friday morning at the Williams Bay Municipal Pier, Greene approached boaters with a quick survey and a reminder that the owners needed to make sure their boats were clean going into the water and clean coming out. In addition, all water from Geneva Lake had to be dumped and not taken to another lake.

Boaters cheerfully chatted with Greene, took the survey and told her where they heard about invasive species control.

Some haven't heard of the state's invasive species law. "Most people say 'I just didn't know,'" Greene said.

Greene is not an enforcement officer. She can't make people talk to her. As the lake specialist for Walworth County, Greene wrote a three-year, $150,000 invasive species education grant last summer through the state Department of Natural Resources. The grant covers the Southeast Fox River Basin, which includes all of Walworth, and about half of Waukesha, Racine and Kenosha counties.

Invasive species are plants and animals that move, or are moved, from their native habitat to a new ecosystem. These transplanted species can sometimes run wild, overgrowing or overeating their new home, forcing out native species. They can impact humans by changing lakes and rivers, destroying game fish and ruining the appeal of those waters.

One of the ways invasive species reach Wisconsin's inland lakes and rivers is by hitching rides with anglers, boaters and other recreationists. Clever stowaways, the invaders ride in bilge tanks, hang on to propellers and mounting brackets, and even attach themselves to fishing lines and tackle gear.

Recent state surveys show that some fishermen will take their boats to five different lakes in one day, Greene said. Unless those fishermen are careful, they could be moving some plant or creature to a new habitat.

It's now illegal to go on the highway with aquatic animals or plants on the boat or trailer. Some local police departments are now beginning to enforce the new regulations, Greene said.

Greene's survey is to determine where and when their boats were in the water, whether the owner cleaned his boat and whether the boater is aware of Wisconsin's anti-invasive species laws.

Sometimes, boat launches get jammed, tempers get short and conversations terse. "You can be at launch and tell that people there don't want to talk to anyone," Greene said. The most she can do then is hand out fliers reminding boaters of preventive measures to stop invasive species.

Even on the best days, Greene can't talk to everyone. At the Delavan Municipal Boat Launch, 18,000 boats were launched and recovered last year. Greene said she talks to as many boaters as she can as they come out of Delavan Lake. Walworth County has 47 public launches on 37 named lakes; four of them on Geneva Lake. Even more launches are private. And while the federally-funded program is a volunteer program, there are few volunteers, Greene said.

Local municipalities are now hiring inspectors to help enforce the new invasive species laws, she said. Greene has already conducted training seminars for the inspectors in Waukesha, Kenosha and Walworth counties.

Geneva Lake has not been spared from invasions of alien species, Greene said. Perhaps the best-known invader are zebra mussels, which attach themselves to rocks, piers and boat bottoms. Their small, sharp shells have been known to cut swimmers' feet. Other invaders include the rusty crayfish and the plants European milfoil and purple loosestrife.

Ted Peters, director of the Lake Geneva Environmental Agency, said the zebra mussels are probably here to stay.

Peters said he welcomed Greene's help in educating the public about invasive species and how to prevent their spread. The problem with invasive species is that the invasion starts out small, usually just a single mussel, a stray leaf cutting or a small clutch of eggs, Peters said.

Many of the invasive species start out at microscopic or near microscopic sizes. Naturalists who inventory the lake don't see them until their numbers have grown to the point where they can't be missed, Peters said..

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