State of the Boundary Waters: Invasive Species in the North

In a globalized, interconnected world, non-native species have become a problem in every corner of the planet. The Boundary Waters has not been spared.

Numerous invasive species threaten to degrade natural habitats, and to eat and outcompete native plants and animals.

Excerpt from State of the Boundary Waters Report. Click here to read the entire thing!

Seeds and another material can “hitchhike” on boats, clothing, and gear. Just as people are primarily responsible for the spread of nonnative species, it is people who can help prevent their spread and keep them from infesting the ecosystem.

In this blog, we’ll look at some of the most devastating species and the impact they are having.

Invasive species that threaten the BWCAW

  • Spiny Waterfleas (Bythotrephes cederstroemi) have infested Caribou, Devil Track, Flour, Greenwood, Gunflint, McFarland, Pine, and Saganaga Lakes along the Gunflint Trail. The tiny crustaceans clog fishing lines, outcompete native species, and are not edible to most fish. They were introduced into the Great Lakes in the 1980s by ballast water discharged from ships arriving from Europe and Asia. Anglers help them spread to new waters because the creatures can attach to fishing lines, downriggers, anchor ropes, and fishing nets, and in bilge water, bait buckets, or livewells. Their eggs can sometimes survive out of water, even when dried or frozen.

  • Starry Stonewort (Nitellopsis obtusa) is a plant known to take over lakes, driving out native plants and hurting bass and sunfish spawning habitat. It was found in lakes about 80 miles from the Superior National Forest in September 2016. Easily transported by boaters because of its small reproductive cells which can attach unnoticed to boats and trailers, it also sticks to fur and feathers, making it easy for birds and animals to move it. Hard to eradicate because herbicides usually only kill the parts of the plant they touch.

  • Rusty Crayfish (Orconectes rusticus) grow to four inches long, excluding the claws, and are present in 17 lakes on the Superior National Forest, eight of which border or are in the BWCAW. They have the potential to displace native crayfish species and impact aquatic plant beds which are important habitats for invertebrates and fish.

  • Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) (Agrilus planipennis) is a beetle which threatens to wipe out almost all of Minnesota’s ash trees, one of the most prolific species in the state. Many of the estimated 1 billion ash trees in Minnesota live in dense stands in swamps where few other trees will grow. Their loss could seriously disrupt the ecosystem. EAB infest and kills weak and healthy ash trees alike, its larvae tunneling through the wood, killing them in 1 to 3 years. Once EAB kills off wet ash swamps in Minnesota, the habitat may change over to grass, cattails, and shrubs, threatening the plants and animals that rely on black ash and forest habitats. It could affect hydrology, with snowmelt and spring rainwater that was previously held into the summer in the black ash swamps released more rapidly by other types of land cover.

  • Gypsy moth caterpillars consume the foliage of several types of trees and can destroy millions of acres of forest each year. Egg masses can be found on trees, logs, firewood, campers, canoes, vehicles, and lawn chairs. People may unintentionally help spread the gypsy moth by moving these objects with egg masses attached, which is how the moth got its name.

Help stop invasive species

The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has partnered with the Superior National Forest and REI to publish a booklet to help BWCAW users identify non-native invasive species and to prevent their spread.

The guide includes photos and descriptions of 22 of the invasive species of concern in northern Minnesota and describes why they should be a concern to everyone from anglers to gardeners.

In the meantime, here are some steps you can take to to prevent the spread of invasive species:

  • Pack out leftover fishing bait and bait containers.
  • Learn what invasive plants look like and report suspected infestations to the Superior National Forest.
  • Pull confirmed invasive plants out of the soil and leave them there to avoid spreading seeds.
  • Make sure that seeds are not stuck to clothes or gear.
  • Clean mud or dirt off vehicles, pets, and boots before traveling onto public land.
  • Plant native species in gardens and yards.
  • Pay attention to what is in seed packets.
  • Do not move firewood
  • Use locally-acquired or certified firewood.

We have a unique opportunity to limit the negative economic, environmental, and social impacts caused by NNIS in the Quetico-Superior region. Compared to other states or provinces, our region still has relatively low levels of NNIS infestation. However, this could change quickly. With the BWCAW attracting thousands of visitors every year from all over the world, the potential for unwanted hitchhikers is high.

On the 40th anniversary of the creation of the BWCAW — and as part of our longtime leadership in protecting, preserving and restoring this national treasure — the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has compiled a State of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness report. Examining the current situation in the Boundary Waters, it provides an overview of the ecological health, human experiences and emerging threats.

Want more?

Read the entire report here.