BISMARCK — The discovery of zebra mussels in a fourth North Dakota lake recently has stakeholders asking for increased vigilance against the invasive species.

A cabin owner on Lake Elsie in Richland County, in the southeast corner of the state, identified zebra mussels attached to a boat lift over the Labor Day weekend, according to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

The 390-acre lake is a popular spot for recreation, just southwest of Hankinson.

The discovery was confirmed in subsequent sampling, with zebra mussels at various life stages found in multiple locations throughout the lake, said Ben Holen aquatic nuisance species (ANS) coordinator for the state.

Zebra mussels cling to a pipe on Lake Elsie in Richland County in September 2021. Its the fourth North Dakota lake to be infested with the aquatic nuisance species. 
North Dakota Game and Fish Department photo
Zebra mussels cling to a pipe on Lake Elsie in Richland County in September 2021. Its the fourth North Dakota lake to be infested with the aquatic nuisance species. North Dakota Game and Fish Department photo

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It wasn’t a surprise, he said, given that Lake Elsie is not far from infested lakes across the border in South Dakota and Minnesota. “This is always in the back of your head,” Holen said.

Lake Elsie is now considered a Class I ANS infested water, joining Twin Lakes, Lake LaMoure, Lake Ashtabula, the lower portion of the Sheyenne River and the Red River in this designation, the Game and Fish Department said.

Emergency rules went into effect immediately, prohibiting movement of water away from the lake, including water for transferring bait. Notices were posted at all Lake Elsie access sites, the department said.

Terry Fleck is the longtime chairman of Friends of Lake Sakakawea, a nonprofit advocacy group for North Dakota’s largest lake 50 miles northwest of Bismarck.

Zebra mussels cover a tire on a dock on Lake Ashtabula north of Valley City, North Dakota.
North Dakota Game and Fish Department photo
Zebra mussels cover a tire on a dock on Lake Ashtabula north of Valley City, North Dakota. North Dakota Game and Fish Department photo

He fears it’s just a matter of time before more North Dakota lakes are infested. “The question will be, which one is next?” Fleck said.

Though Fleck applauds the work of the Game and Fish Department, he said they’re still working with limited staff and resources. He said state and federal policymakers and leaders need to make aquatic nuisance species a priority and allocate necessary funds to address the problem.

In late June, he sounded the alarm about a zebra mussel-infested pontoon that was stopped from entering Lake Audubon near Coleharbor, North Dakota. Lake Audubon is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and fed by waters from adjacent Lake Sakakawea.

“This is a big deal, a really big deal, and people are in denial,” Fleck said. “This is something we should not be ignoring.”

A zebra mussel attached to a dock removed from the Red River in Wahpeton, North Dakota.
North Dakota Game and Fish Department photo
A zebra mussel attached to a dock removed from the Red River in Wahpeton, North Dakota. North Dakota Game and Fish Department photo

There are several reasons zebra mussels are considered a nuisance to bodies of water.

They take up many nutrients in the water, which can cause weeds to proliferate and make fishing holes unusable, Holen said.

When zebra mussels become detached from a surface, their sharp shells can be a hazard to barefoot beachgoers.

Not only cabin owners, anglers, boaters and swimmers should be concerned. The invasive species can clog water intakes and restrict water access, creating extra expenses for municipalities, Holen said.

Zebra mussels are also hard on hydropower dams, prompting shutdowns at times for costly cleaning by divers.

“Whether you’re a lake user or not, this affects everybody, directly or indirectly,” Holen said.

After the first infestation in the state, the Game and Fish Department ramped up its monitoring program, sampling 143 bodies of water for zebra mussels.

In 2019, the Legislature passed a bill allocating an estimated $1.5 million per biennium to North Dakota’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Program.

The funding was generated by aquatic nuisance species surcharges and fees for watercraft registration, fishing and waterfowl licenses and is being spent on prevention, monitoring, enforcement and education/outreach programs, as well as a digital marketing campaign.

The Game and Fish Department used to have only a few ANS seasonal staff, Holen said. Now, it has 17 people doing more than 5,000 watercraft inspections a year.

Every weekend seasonally, inspectors are posted at the four infested lakes, Holen said, to check boats coming out of the water. At Lake Sakakawea and Devils Lake, boats entering the water are prioritized for inspection.

“We’re doing the best job with the resources and the allocation we have,” Holen said.

North Dakota has the following regulations in place to prevent the spread of aquatic nuisance species:

  • Remove vegetation and drain all water from boats before leaving water access points.
  • Remove drain plugs and leave drain holes open during transport.
  • Do not import bait. It is illegal to dump unused bait on a shore or into a river or lake.

The Game and Fish Department recommends taking these steps:

  • Avoid mooring watercraft in zebra mussel infested waters.
  • Clean boats of plants, animals and mud, and drain all water before leaving water access points.
  • Allow equipment to dry completely or disinfect before using again, including boat docks and boat lifts brought from other bodies of water or other states.

For more information about aquatic nuisance species or to report an infestation, visit the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's website.