How an Aquatic Invasion Transformed a Community’s Relationship with a Lake – and Each Other

by Sydney Widell
As Dan Benson was enjoying the view of Upper Buckatabon Lake from his dock one morning, he noticed something in the water he’d never seen in the 20 years he’s lived on the water.
The morning was calm and the lake was glassy. But some 250 feet off shore, a stretch of water looked different — almost shinier than the rest of the lake, Dan says.

Eurasian water milfoil can carpet a lake’s surface, pushing out native plant species and entangling boat props and fishing lines.  Photo: Gretchen Hansen

Dan investigated. What he found was invasive Eurasian Water Milfoil, a prolific, invasive weed known to drastically alter lake habitats. Dan’s discovery was the first known occurrence of Eurasian Water Milfoil on the Buckatabon Chain.
That was three years ago.
Since then, Dan has been at the forefront of lake-wide efforts to control the weed, and he says what began as a campaign to contain an aquatic invasion has grown into a larger movement toward active lake stewardship. Today, he serves as the acting director of the Buckatabon Lakes Association and is part of a growing network of citizen lake monitors across the Northwoods.
Citizen Lake Monitors work closely with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to keep a careful eye their waterways. The monitors sample their lakes routinely and use that data to make informed management decisions. Organizations like the Center for Limnology and the WDNR can then turn to the data Citizen Lake Monitors collect to trace out larger trends on Wisconsin lakes.
The state limnology department refers to Citizen Lake Monitoring data to make decisions about placing lakes on or removing them from their list of impaired waters, according to Sandy Wickman, the Citizen Lake Monitor coordinator for the Northern Highlands region.
In fact, by Wickman’s estimation, this voluntarily collected Citizen Lake Monitoring data is worth millions of dollars to the WDNR — and taxpayers. 
“Previously, we’d used the lake for recreation but had not been fully aware of the impact that man has on the quality of the water,” Dan said. “Now, we take stewardship seriously.”
Working with the WDNR to monitor the health of his lake, Dan and his neighbors  collect data that helps them make better management decisions and support research at institutions like the CFL. Photo: S. Widell

The first thing Dan did when he found Eurasian Water Milfoil on Upper Buckatabon was organize a meeting between him, a few neighbors and representatives from the WDNR. In all, he estimates there were 50 people in attendance, none of whom knew each other that well.
By the end of the meeting, the group had formed a lake association, appointed leadership and begun to outline their vision for the Buckatabon Lakes. Today, more than half of the 240 property owners on the Buckatabon chain are involved in the association, which Dan said is an impressive turnout.
Once incorporated, a lake association has the power to improve fish habitat, purchase vulnerable habitat areas, stock fish, and, most importantly for Dan, to organize invasive plant control and removal.
“I’m a big believer that every cloud has a silver lining,” Dan said. “In our case, we didn’t know anyone on this lake, but after we found the milfoil and started the association, we’ve met some really good folks.”
Forming the Lake Association gave Dan and Lake residents access to networking with other Associations and gain support from various state entities such as the WDNR and University of Wisconsin Extension in Stevens Point, which work with the state’s many lakes associations and their umbrella organization, the Wisconsin Association of Lakes.
Now, Dan and his neighbors work alongside the WDNR as Lake Monitors themselves. They regularly take to the lake to perform routine sampling, blending their love of the outdoors with their passion for science. They test for nutrients, like phosphorus, in the water, check water clarity and temperature and record the lake’s dissolved oxygen levels.
“I like to spend as much time on the water as possible, and being a monitor is one more way to do that,” Dan said. “There are lots of economic reasons to keep your lakes healthy, but for me, that’s not the driving factor.”
Although the lake association began as a response to the water milfoil, Dan said that its focus has expanded as he and his neighbors learned more about the dynamics of freshwater ecosystems through their work with that program.
Aquatic Invasive Species buoys the Buckatabon Lakes Association installed. Since milfoil propagates through fragmentation, keeping boats from disturbing it can slow its spread. Photo: Sydney Widell

In addition to minimizing the spread of Eurasian Water Milfoil, the association has begun to volunteer with the Clean Boats Clean Waters initiative to reduce the risk of future invasive introductions on the Buckatabon Chain. They are also closely monitoring their lakes’ walleye, a species that has seen population declines across the state.
“I think we’re doing a pretty good job, but we’re always learning,” Dan said. “Hopefully, education will help everybody.”
I’m standing with Dan on his dock, in almost the exact spot he was when he first spotted the Eurasian Water Milfoil three years ago. It’s a windy day, so we can’t see much, but Dan says that when the water is still, the milfoil is visible across his bay.
What’s different is that the area is dotted off from the rest of the lake with Aquatic Invasive Species buoys installed by the Buckatabon Lakes Association, which signal other boaters to avoid the region. And in a week, Dan and his friends will be on the water with their Citizen Lake Monitor test kits, to perform a round of lake surveys.
“It’s nearly impossible to eradicate the milfoil once it’s here,” Dan said. “But there are so many other things we can do. We’re trying as best we can to be good stewards to the lake, and we want to keep it as healthy as we can.”

Top photo: Dan Benson stands along the shore of Upper Buckatabon Lake. Photo: Sydney Widell