Extension’s Eleanor Burkett spearheads new AIS Detector Program in the battle on invasive species

University of Minnesota Extension Educator Eleanor Burkett is heading up an intensive boots-on-the-ground approach in the battle to slow the spread of invasive species in Minnesota—she’s donning waders in a multi-partner, University-led effort to train hundreds of citizen scientists to become certified Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Detectors.

Based in Extension’s Brainerd regional office, Burkett is one of six Extension educators specializing in water resources who report to the Water Resource Center’s (WRC) Associate Director and Extension Program Leader Faye Sleeper.

A lover of the outdoors, Burkett landed her first job in horticulture at a local garden center when she was a teen in North Dakota. She went on to earn her applied science degree in horticulture at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. Stints at a nature center and an internship at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum piqued a fascination with native plants and inspired her to earn a Bachelor of Science from North Dakota State University. Following attaining her bachelor’s degree, she served in the US Peace Corps for two years in the Philippines. She earned a Master of Education degree, with her thesis focused on behavior change in environmental education, from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, following her employment with the UM Extension

After 12 years in the landscape and garden industry, Burkett joined the Shoreland Education Team in 2000, where she spearheaded education programming in shoreland protection and erosion control using native plants and bio-engineering. Recently her work focused on and watershed and stormwater issues. Over the years, she’s delivered programs on terrestrial and aquatic invaders.
Burkett is now overseeing the development of a statewide AIS Detectors Program, a University-developed, intensive educational program that trains professionals, as well as citizen scientists, to make credible detections of aquatic invasive species (AIS). The program is being developed as a collaborative effort between the UM Extension and MAISRC.
Developed in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the program is part of an organized statewide surveillance network of trained observers designed to allow DNR experts to more efficiently focus on verification of new infestations.
Launching this summer, the program’s core course combines online and workshop learning focusing on the detection of aquatic invasive species, including plants, fish and invertebrates found in Minnesota, as well as on identification of lookalike, non-invasive species. “It’s a common misconception that all species not native to Minnesota are invasive,” says Burkett. “To be considered an invasive species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, organisms not only have to be beyond their historic range, but their presence must be harmful to native ecosystems or the commercial, agricultural or recreational activities dependent upon those ecosystems, or human health.”

Open to professionals, as well as citizen scientists, lake association leaders, master naturalists and other motivated citizens, the program will train participants to identify organisms suspected to be AIS, as well as knowing Minnesota regulations and statewide AIS reporting procedures. “Although AIS Detectors will not be making definitive conclusions, they will be absolutely key in screening out false-positive samples,” says Burkett.

Burkett’s relationship to WRC gives her direct access to University faculty, while helping WRC better connect with Minnesotans on the state level.

“Minnesotans want to do the right thing and many want to be part of the solution to the invasive threat,” says Burkett. “The AIS Detector Program provides an opportunity for volunteers to make a difference while learning about aquatic invasive species that are a current or emerging threat to Minnesota,” she says. “Once trained, volunteers in the detector network will receive ongoing updates and University training as new species of concern emerge.”

eleanor burkett

Eleanor Burkett conducting a field component of the AIS Training Detector program as part of the 2015 Aquatic Invasive Species Research and Management Showcase held in St. Paul.