Northern Minnesota | Itasca County Minnesota. A land of water and woods, rich history, and family legacy - many words conjure up images of this place of exquisite beauty. It’s easy see. The rugged land inspires people to get outside and live life. When it comes to water, well, the resource is diverse and many - natural lakes, reservoirs, rivers & streams, and countless wetlands with rich aquifers under foot. Itasca County is nothing short of a geological masterpiece sculpted by the glaciers 10,000 years ago – which gifted this landscape with over a thousand lakes, and the Mississippi River.

Itasca County’s pristine waters shape our DNA. Generations of Minnesotans and outstate guests live and have visited here to nurture souls into outdoors spirits, and in turn, have become stewards of the land. We’re fisherman, boaters, divers and swimmers, kayakers and canoeists, sailors, sunrise watchers, hunter-gatherers | we’re Lake People. We’d like permanence to describe our natural resources – a shared desire to hand down a land and its water, unchanged, so that others experience the same greatness that has shaped our lives. But change is not always a consequence of time. This video seeks to address some of the risks posed by aquatic invasive species, specifically in our own Itasca County. We’re fortunate that in partnership, we have the ability to stop the onward march of invasive organisms that threaten the places we so very much love. The time is now to do something about it. Let us partner as a community of users, bound by a beautiful place, and preserve our outdoor traditions.


So what are aquatic invasive species and the issue with them? To broadly define, aquatic invasive species are organisms that are non-native to a particular place. They evolved elsewhere in the world, and those that excel here are usually from a similar latitude and climate regime oversees. Global commerce has connected our world and with it, moved plants and animals unintentionally and sometimes intentionally. Biologically speaking, invasive species outcompete native species – which didn’t evolve the defense mechanisms to fend them off. The result is often dominance by the invasive organism, and this can spell big change in the form of reduced abundance of desired plant and animal species. There’s several AIS in Minnesota, but let’s take a closer look at a few in particular that pose a high risk of diminishing the recreational value and overall health of our Itasca County waters


A relative newcomer, the starry stonewort is a grass-like algae that can form expansive and impenetrable pillow-like mats. The first confirmed discovery of starry stonewort was on Lake Koronis in Stearns County in August of 2015. Since that time, it has rapidly spread and formed sprawling and nearly impenetrable mats in certain areas of the lake. The footage speaks for itself. The impact on recreational use has been severe, with many shoreline owners unable to swim or deploy boats from lifts and docks without clogging props. Aerial inspection reveals massive mats that span near-shore shallows and extending outward into the lake significant distances. Starry stonewort may displace native vegetation and adversely affect spawning sites for several gamefish species not to mention just flat out block fish from successfully living in infested areas. Since 2015, starry stonewort have been confirmed on several north-central Minnesota lakes, including Red Lake, Cass Lake, Moose Lake in Beltrami county, and Lake Winnibigoshish. Starry Stonewort plants, plant fragments, and the white flower-like bulbils are highly susceptible to transport on boats, trailers, personal watercraft, and lakeshore equipment. Close proximity to Itasca County coupled with its ease of transport and recreational impact makes the starry stonewort a significant cause for concern.


Zebra mussels are fingernail-sized animals that attach to solid surfaces in the water and can significantly alter the physical and chemical makeup of infested waters. Once established, they carpet entire hard bottom areas with a crust of sharp-edged shells, including man-made objects like watercraft, lakeshore equipment, and pipes. Take Mille Lacs or even our own Sand Lake – these iconic and productive waters are experiencing gamefish populations in turmoil, in part, due to the restructuring of the food web – zebra mussels feed on the tiny plankton that support our diverse fish communities. This leaves less food for native fish, with much of the productivity being absorbed and fixed by zebra mussels at the base of the food chain. Water clarity increases as a result of their filter feeding, but there’s a common misconception that increased water clarity is good. To our visual senses perhaps, but clarity increases come at a cost – the removal of critical plankton, the food required by larval fish. This can reduce game fish abundance, as commonly seen with walleye, which thrive in windswept and turbid lakes like Big Winnie, Bowstring, Leech Lake and Mille Lacs. Factor in that walleye are also more competitive feeders in lakes with some stain, so clearing of the water doesn’t bode well for the walleye or anglers that pursue them. Zebra mussels fall under the high spread risk category. Our county AIS inspectors have experienced and treated several cases of watercraft zebra mussel encrustations on Sand Lake. Boats and pontoons that have been in the water for extended periods of time pose the biggest risk. 


The spiny water flea is an invasive microscopic animal that feeds on the desirable native zooplankton that also occupy the base of the food chain. These native zooplankton are the required food for most minnow and panfish species, plus juvenile walleye, while the spiny water flea is not on the menu – their size and structure make them difficult for small fish to eat. The more abundant the spiny water flea, the less food that remains for small fish. Lake Vermillion and Mille Lacs are nearby waters infested with the spiny water flea. They can be spread in bait buckets and boat hulls, residual trailer water or by attaching to boating equipment such as fishing line and anchor rope. And many of us have heard or seen the effects of Eurasian watermilfoil and curly leaf pondweed. Both are present in Itasca County, and form dense and matted stands, reducing water acreage for recreation such as boating or swimming. Residents of Little Jay Gould can attest the excessive growth of curly-leaf pondweed, and the impacts on water usage. Like most AIS, likely means of transport is attachment to boats, trailers, and other water-based equipment.    

The MN Department of Natural Resources website provides a comprehensive listing of aquatic and terrestrial invasive species – AND – there’s many other devastating AIS at the doorstep of the United States. Practicing a thorough Clean Drain Dry procedure will help keep Itasca County waters clean from stateside and foreign invaders on the threshold of entry.


Clean Drain Dry is a simple 3-step process performed anytime we remove something from the water; boats, trailers, lakeshore equipment or other water-related gear (insert scuba). Start off by performing a full 360-degree visual inspection of all surfaces, making sure to remove weeds, sediments and other organics. Next, remove all drain plugs to empty live wells and boat hulls - transfer bait to clean fresh water or properly dispose of it in accordance with Minnesota law. And finally, either manually dry with rags or let the equipment sit long enough to air dry. Very little water is needed to keep certain AIS alive. Itasca County’s inspection team is active at lakes accesses throughout the county to help inform, educate and perform inspections, but can’t be everywhere. We’re all partners in preventing the spread, and the Clean Drain Dry process is an easy, quick and effective way to prevent new infestations. Should we meet you, our county inspection team strives to be minimally invasive and always friendly. Like you, we’re users of the resource and prideful of what we have. High pressure and hot water decontamination services are available to you, and encouraged if you detect or are concerned about watercraft or lakeshore equipment harboring AIS. Please call the The Itasca County AIS Information Hotline (218-256-4243) with any questions or concerns pertaining to AIS. We’re here to help. 


Let’s leave a gift of clean Itasca County water in an unaltered state. Because when it comes to water, we don’t want any change. Nature gave us perfection, and it’s our charge to maintain and enhance it. Let’s partner to preserve our Itasca County Outdoor Tradition.