Bemidji exhibit educates on invasive species

A new science center exhibit in Bemidji is aiming to educate people about the threats posed by aquatic invasive species.

The Headwaters Science Center's new exhibit highlights the invasive plants, fish and invertebrates that threaten Minnesota waterways. It includes samples of species such as the zebra mussel and faucet snail, and an electronic game that lets participants look at pictures and guess whether it's an invasive species.

The science center created the free exhibit with a Department of Natural Resources grant, the Bemidji Pioneer reported Sunday. A science center staff member said the goal is to arm people with knowledge that will help them slow the spread of invasive species.

"If people would help, it is possible to at least slow down their approach," said Anita Merritt, an aquatic biologist who led the design of the exhibit. "Probably not stop them but to at least slow them down until we have the means necessary to deal with them."

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Merritt said she hopes lake users realize that precautions requested to slow the spread of invasive species are "for the good of the lake. It's not to keep you off the lake, or to keep you from fishing, but to keep fishing possible," she said.

Shoreline property owners and lake tourism-related businesses have come to understand such restrictions, she said, but educational efforts are aimed at more casual lake users who "lake hop" -- putting one boat into multiple waterways in the same day.

The Department of Natural Resources has directed major resources into fighting invasive species. In the northwest region alone -- the agency divides the state into four regions -- there are 25 inspectors who rotate among public accesses inspecting boats for signs of invasive species. They check to ensure boat plugs are pulled, that water is drained from boats and bait buckets, and for any vegetation that might be clinging to a boat.

"For most of the inspections, really, the main purpose is education," said Bruce Anspach, DNR watercraft inspection program assistant.

Some lake advocates are joining in the fight. The Friends of Lake Bemidji secured its own DNR grant this year for 456 DNR inspection hours, with the agency covering half the costs and the lake association picking up the rest. Syd Corrigan, vice president of the group, said aquatic invasive species are "just a disaster" for the lake and that it's important to prevent them given the key role of tourism in the Bemidji economy.

"It's a very serious situation," Corrigan said. "It is priority No. 1 for us."