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Winter Snows Creating North Dakota Lakes Access Concerns

From the North Dakota Game and Fish Department

-- Near-record early winter snowfall over much of North Dakota is generating public and state Game and Fish Department concerns regarding the state’s fishing waters. Winter anglers are having a tough time getting on or moving around on many lakes, and Game and Fish biologists may have to alter plans for winter lake work, according to Greg Power, department fisheries division chief.

In addition, department biologists are also worried about the potential for low oxygen levels in many lakes because of heavy snowpack.

Game and Fish does not have the equipment resources to maintain access to lakes in winter, Power said. Even agency fisheries biologists will likely have to do their winter monitoring work via snowmobile on loan from other divisions. “This year, even if we could help with access points on a few lakes, people would have difficulty getting around,” Power said.

In many cases, Power added, local individuals or groups pitch in to try to keep access points open. In particular, Devils Lake has an active local effort to plow select areas so people can get vehicles on the lake.

“It’s just hard this year,” Power acknowledged. “Every time the wind blows it plugs up areas that had been open.”

This winter’s snow pack is double trouble because it also will likely lead to some fish kills, Power said. “As in the past during tough winters, we will undoubtedly lose some lakes to winterkill, but it’s just too early to predict which lakes and how many may be impacted,” he said.
Similar conditions have not existed since the winter of 1996-97. To compare the two at this point is difficult. “We are just getting into the heart of winter,” Power said. “Who knows what the next couple months will bring.”

Game and Fish biologists have studied and experimented with ways to avoid or reduce winterkill for decades. These projects have included winter aeration systems and clearing snow from the ice in an effort to enhance oxygen in the water. Because of inconclusive findings and safety concerns, Game and Fish no longer operates any aeration systems, and snow removal experiments were phased out in the 1970s.

In spite of the rough conditions so far this winter, Power said there is a potential upside. “A good snow pack may lead to a decent spring runoff event,” he added. “If this occurs, the department will be prepared to restock any winterkill lakes, and with more water in those lakes, habitat conditions will greatly improve which will lead to longer term sustainability of those lakes.”

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