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You are here: Home / Manager's Tool Kit / Early Detection and Rapid Response / The Early Detectives / University of Minnesota: Exotic Species Program
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Early Detection and Rapid Response

The Early Detectives: How to Use Volunteers Against Invasive Species, Case Studies of Volunteer Early Detection Programs in the U.S.

University of Minnesota: Aquatic Invasive Species

Contacts: Doug Jensen
E-mail: djensen1@d.umn.edu
Phone: (218) 726-8712


This early detection program at the University of Minnesota is funded by a grant from Sea Grant.

The program has four parts:

1. Monitoring - Volunteers report invasive species sightings every year. In most cases, the likely cause is that the public transported the species.

2. Absence-presence - Staff members use GIS software and data collected from volunteers who have personal GPS units to determine if a species is present or absent in a specific location and then compare it to data from previous years. Looking for new populations each year will determine the frequency of exotic invasions.

3. Integrating already existing local programs into this program - The program strives to use resources that already exist and to involve local people who are passionate from environmental groups, citizen groups, and other volunteer organizations.

4. Using the program as a conduit for a flow of information - This portion of the program focuses on public education for boaters, anglers, and other individuals who are not members of associations. Most people get their information from such diverse sources that they have confused notions of the truth. This program wants to use newsletters and articles based on their own scientific research as a direct flow of information.


The program recruits volunteers from lake associations and the coalitions that they form, conservation organizations, environmental groups, and water quality studies done by active citizens. An example of a group the Sea Grant program works with is the Minnesota Lakes Association. Sea Grant employees attend conferences and meetings to learn more about invasives but also to publicize the program's name and recruit volunteers. Also, the program publishes newspaper articles, funds advertising campaigns on the radio and television, and gives public service announcements.

Advertising depends on the program's budgetary restraints and the audience. The timing has to be right and the audience has to be receptive for the advertising to be worth the money.

A newsletter is the main form of communication. The program will use all volunteers who are interested in helping, even if it is to monitor only a small pond or puddle for an exotic species invasion. Approximately 200 people are currently monitoring waterways for zebra mussel larvae.


1. Training video - "Stop Exotics, Clean Your Boat"
This humorous film shows the simple steps boaters across North America can take to prevent the spread of invasive plants and animals. "Studies have shown that boaters will take steps to prevent the spread of aquatic nuisance species (also known as exotic species) if they are provided with the information. This video is part of education efforts conducted by many agencies in the United States and Canada. The information it presents is based on voluntary prevention guidelines developed by the Recreation Activities Committee of the federal Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force and recommendations approved by the U.S. Coast Guard" (http://www.seagrant.umn.edu/exotics/stop.html).

2. Fact sheets, video, and CD - Volunteers receive three-ring binders with fact sheets and information regarding the species they will monitor. Each fact sheet has a reminder to contact your local authorities before transporting any species because it could be illegal to do so. Fact sheets are also available online, along with the MN Department of Natural Resources guidebook and an ordering form for the "Exotics To Go!" CD. "Exotics To Go contains seven 'conveniently wrapped' PowerPoint presentations -- including scripts, images, and talking points -- that focus on zebra mussel impacts and control. Twenty-two informational publications in PDF format and lists of people to contact about ANS are also included. All material is peer-reviewed to ensure quality." (View Online).

3. Preserved Specimens - 600 sets of preserved invasive species are available for individual volunteers or one for an entire group or region. A portion of the grant money was spent on creating the sets, but specimens that volunteers collect are also used for the sets. If a volunteer finds an unidentifiable species, it is better bring it to Sea Grant or DNR personnel (after checking regulations on legal transport of the species) for a visual identification.

Data Collection

Volunteers visually monitor for adult and juvenile zebra mussels by checking docks, the bottom of pontoon boats, and any other hard surfaces. If a person or a business is on a lake, the program advises hanging a white PVC pipe from their dock as a testing site. The smooth, white PVC surface lends itself well to early detection of zebra mussel larvae. The newsletters that the volunteers receive contain reporting forms, which they fill out and send back to Sea Grant or DNR.

Volunteers also use kits designed by the Sea Grant program to monitor zebra mussel larvae. The state is divided into two areas based on water temperature, so volunteers monitor their specific areas. The kits go out on loan to volunteers who monitor waterways at different times of the year depending on the season and reproduction stage of the zebra mussel.

The kits include "museum-quality" preserved specimens of zebra mussels, Eurasian ruffe, purple loosestrife, Eurasian watermilfoil, and spiny waterfleas. There's also a realistic rubber sea lamprey, models of native clams, books, maps, posters, magnifying glasses, a companion VHS video, and a complete curriculum with nine lessons developed in cooperation with University of Minnesota researchers and state environmental agencies.

Fifteen kits are available and twenty people share the kits. A few highly susceptible lakes have the kits on a long-term loan. The Web site includes a listing of each lending center. A new kit costs $150 and the program had to build five more than they anticipated. The program asks volunteers to match $125 to pay for postage to mail samples to the lab. Usually volunteers are associated with lake associations or conservation organizations that are willing to pay because they see the value in this kind of information.

These kits are used for the other form of data collection. This second form is where a volunteer uses a zooplankton net while out in a boat to collect a vertical tow of 18-feet, concentrate water in the bottom, and take three samples. They have equipment to concentrate the water sample to a small size, boxes to ship the water samples to a lab in New York, and a training manual with the necessary who, when, and where information for sample collecting and sending.

Volunteers, national park services, and lake associations all help collect the data. They receive newsletters that have data report forms included. The data report forms go straight to the DNR. It is a proactive approach, which lends itself to early detection of any developments because people know and will report when they see a change. When people all work together on a single cause like this, "it fosters a sense of community around their waterbodies."


1. Develop a program that fits your state - Any program needs and should use the volunteers and other resources that are already available from other organizations. If there is an invasion, blanket the area with public education (signs, boater guidelines, newsletters, articles, etc.) that fits the area.

2. Hire undergraduate students to station water entry points to act as educators for boaters. Although they have no enforcement capabilities, they can call someone if necessary and they should go through a training session with DNR before they begin work.

3. Ask for enough money - This project was delayed for a year and a half because more staff was needed. Also, they made five more kits above the expected number so the budget was tight.

4. Put enough emphasis on public education - Research and control are necessary but is not the only portion of the program. Public education and prevention (integrated into public policy) are very important.

5. Try to dispel the myth that infestations are going to occur anyway.

The program's biggest success has been the continued absence of zebra mussels in Minnesota waters (with one exception) for the past ten years. Volunteers are motivated to take action because they know what they are doing and it is for a purpose. A Sea Grant survey showed a 95% compliance from the public, so they must be doing something right. People are willing to do their part of the solution, but they need information and a spark of excitement for them to be active.

Quick Facts

Staffing: Minnesota Sea Grant Director; part-time (sometimes full-time) assistant

Operating Budget: $1.5 million total $300,000-$500,000 between DNR and MN Sea Grant - used for implementation, policy, monitoring, management, control, research, public education, watercraft inspection, and enforcement. Other sources of funding are regional fish and wildlife service offices, National Park Services, Army Corps of Engineers, Minnesota Lakes Association, University of Minnesota extension service, and external grants.

Species Targeted: 5 of 80 total, terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals
Zebra Mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) * focus of the volunteers
Eurasian ruffe - (Gymnocephalus cernuus)
Sea Lamprey - (Petromyzon marinus)
Purple Loosestrife - (Lythrum salicaria)
Threespine stickleback - (Gasterosteus aculeatus)

Volunteer Training: video, identification cards, training manual, fact sheets, power point

Data Collection: visual inspection, man-made testing sites (PVC pipes), water sampling, report forms filled out by volunteers and submitted to DNR
Organizer: Sea Grant - University of Minnesota - Exotic Species Program

Report prepared by: Allyson Ladley

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Last Modified: May 18, 2016
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