Invasive mudsnails are creeping into Wyoming. A snorkeler recently discovered them in Albany County
On a sunny October day, Jenny Loveridge walked in her swimsuit down to Alsop Lake. It’s not much bigger than a pond, in the middle of a prairie in Albany County.
Loveridge was gearing up to snorkel. She got her flippers wet and slipped them on.
“So once I get in, I'm gonna swim really hard because that's the only way to stay warm is just to get my muscles really working," she said.
The water is cold, 48 degrees. Loveridge lowered into the water and started exploring underwater.
Loveridge is a scientist who’s lived in Laramie since 2004. She’s snorkeled just about every body of water within 200 miles.
“Because I love the waters here,” she said. “This is one of the reasons I live here is to be able to enjoy the lakes and the reservoirs.”
This summer, when she was snorkeling in Alsop Lake, she saw something new on the plants.
“Oh, they're everywhere,” Loveridge said. “These little black dots. I mean, they're tiny.”
She’s referring to New Zealand mudsnails – an invasive aquatic species. They’re the size of a grain of rice, with a swirly tan or dark colored shell. Loveridge saw millions.
“And I was just like, ‘Oh, this can't be good.’”
So, she called up the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD).
Josh Leonard is the aquatic invasive species coordinator for WGFD. He said mudsnails do come from New Zealand, but were first found in the U.S. in Idaho’s Snake River in the late '80s. A few years later, they were found in Wyoming and are now in three lakes and a few rivers. And that’s pretty impressive. Wyoming has worked hard to stop invasive species from entering its waters. They’ve done a pretty good job. For example, invasive mussels have been found in several surrounding states, but Wyoming has managed to keep them out. But, the lesser known mudsnails are here.
“Just like any invasive species, they [mudsnails] outcompete those native species,” Leonard said.
They can wreak havoc on fish by overtaking the habitat, so the native species that fish would normally eat start to decline. There can be 300,000 mudsnails per square meter, and they’re asexual, so it only takes one for them to multiply. They also do this really weird, rare thing when fish eat them.
“The opening of their shell, they can fully close that off. So they're able to basically survive the digestive tract of fish,” he said.
The fish use energy to eat them but don’t get any nutritional value.
Leonard said prevention is key. Once they’re in a body of water it’s hard to get rid of them, and one of his main concerns is that they’ve possibly lived undiscovered in Alsop Lake for a couple years.
“Obviously, that means that there could have been a likelihood that they moved already to other waters,” he said.
So far WGFD hasn’t discovered them in other nearby lakes. But, mudsnails like to catch a free ride to the next body of water by latching onto things like snorkeling flippers, boats or fishing waders.
Which Nicholas Gindulis uses when he fly fishes at Alsop Lake or anywhere. He studies chemical engineering at the University of Wyoming.
“I probably shouldn't be here fishing,” he said. “I should be studying. That's okay.”
He comes out pretty regularly because, in theory, it’s good trout fishing.
“Well, it is if you're not me, I guess,” Gindulis chuckled. “I don't know if I'm not that great or what.”
But Gindulis looked the part – he has a scraggly beard, a ball cap that literally has a fish on it and some long, rubber waders.
New Zealand mudsnails weren’t on his mind.
“I had no idea that was a thing if I'm being honest,” he said.
Gindulis said normally he just dries his waders but doesn’t clean them – and that’s how invasive species can spread. Now that he knows, he’ll change that.
“Well, I guess I'll clean my waders so I don't spread it,” he said. “Because I'll probably be fishing in North Platte this weekend.”
But, he might be in the clear this time. Jenny Loveridge, the snorkeler, finished her icy cold swim with little to report.
“They might be hibernating because I didn’t see any. Or at the bottom or something,” Loveridge said as she shivered.
The WGFD said that’s actually possible but they don’t have any specific research backing it up.
When Loveridge got home she was going to bleach her flippers and goggles to clean them, just in case. Another way to clean your gear? Dry it for ten days or freeze it overnight.