Group critical of state’s invasive mussels efforts

April 10, 2019 GMT

The Wibaux inspection station near the North Dakota line plays a vital role in trying to protect the state’s lakes and streams from aquatic invasive mussels.

The station inspects the watercraft of motorists westbound on Interstate 94, travelers who might unwittingly be transporting invasive species on hulls, motors, anchors or inside ballast tanks.

On July 19, 2018, a boat that had last launched at Lake Minnetonka, a Minnesota lake infested with invasive mussels, entered the Wibaux station. Given the boat’s launch history, it should have been treated as a high-risk inspection and its anchor should have been examined.

Neither happened, according to Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks inspection reports reviewed by Watershed Protection Advocates.

A few days later, another boat from Minnesota, bound for Flathead Lake, received inadequate inspections at both the Wibaux station and an inspection station at Anaconda, according to Watershed Protection Advocates.

On Monday, the group, which formed after the state cut funding for the Flathead Basin Commission, released a report that graded the state’s efforts to protect lakes and streams from aquatic invasive species.

The grade was C-minus.

Watershed Protection Advocates said the Wibaux station’s examples might reflect lapses in data entry or inspection training or both.

On Tuesday, Greg Lemon, a spokesman for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the agency was already aware of many of the issues raised in the report about the 2018 inspection season and is already working to address them.

“We haven’t sat down and thought about any programmatic changes this [report] is going to lead to,” he said.

Lemon said one focus is improving coordination among the inspection stations, as well as providing consistent oversight and training.

In 2018, inspection stations operated by Fish, Wildlife and Parks or partners inspected more than 109,000 watercraft and intercepted 16 out-of-state boats with mussels attached.

Partners included the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Blackfeet Nation, Missoula County and Garfield Conservation District.

One recommendation proposed by Watershed Protection Advocates is for the state Legislature to provide funding for the Environmental Quality Council to hire independent contractors to visit inspection stations with boats to “ground truth” the adequacy of inspectors’ responses.

Lemon said Fish, Wildlife and Parks currently includes “secret shopper” type evaluations of inspection stations.

Caryn Miske, director of Watershed Protection Advocates, said groups such as the Flathead Basin Commission and Upper Columbia Conservation Commission that are tasked with helping to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species can be reluctant to hold state agencies’ “feet to the fire.”

Miske, former executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission, was fired from that role last year by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Among other things, the department complained that Miske had tried to turn the Flathead Basin Commission into a watchdog group bird-dogging the state agency.

Earlier this year, she filed a lawsuit against the DNRC, alleging she was wrongfully fired.

In January the Montana Invasive Species Council released a report that suggests Montana’s economy would be hit with more than $230 million in annual mitigation costs and lost revenue if invasive mussels become established in the state.

And that figure did not include ripple effects and indirect costs associated with such infestation.

Zebra and quagga mussels are invasive freshwater mussels discovered in the Great Lakes in the mid-1980s. Infestations can cause the extinction of many native mollusks, change the structure of food webs and contribute to the collapse of valuable sport-fish populations, according to the council’s report on economic costs.

Liz Lodman, coordinator for Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Aquatic Invasive Species program, has said that invasive mussels disrupt the food chain because they can filter so much water and remove food that fish and other aquatic life would eat. She said mussels also can cover areas where fish once laid eggs.

Dense concentrations of mussels also can clog pipelines and water intakes and disrupt operations at hydroelectric power plants and municipal water plants.

Mussels can grow on boat hulls, engines and steering components.

“Beaches can become unusable due to the sharp shells and pungent odors of dead mussels washing ashore,” the council report said.

Threatened resources include premier fisheries, recreation, infrastructure, lakeshore property values and related tax revenues.

Thus, the stakes are high.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been working since 2005 to try to prevent the introduction of invasive mussels. The department’s interventions include inspecting watercraft, early detection monitoring and education.

These efforts intensified after larvae of invasive mussels were detected at Tiber Reservoir, with a suspected detection also at Canyon Ferry Reservoir. So far, no adult mussels have been found and no more larvae have been detected.

In January, Robin Steinkraus, executive director of the Flathead Lakers, described the watercraft inspection stations run by the state or tribes as the best defense against mussels.

“Those stations need to be open longer hours and for a longer season to reduce the risk of mussel introductions and prevent the enormous annual costs associated with mussels,” Steinkraus said then.

The report card released Monday by Watershed Protection Advocates also recommended expansion of the inspection season and hours of operation of the inspection stations.

“What we’re aiming for is to get the greatest number of boats inspected as possible,” Miske said.

Lemon said Fish, Wildlife and Parks is considering whether and how to expand the season and hours of inspection stations. He acknowledged that it can be challenging to fully staff inspection stations at remote locations in Montana.

Lemon emphasized that the agency welcomes working with partners to try and prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species, an effort to which he said Fish, Wildlife and Parks is deeply committed.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.