Kate Wilson, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s invasive species outreach specialist, addresses a group of environmentally minded attendees at a free wildlife speaker series put on by the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Jack Creek Preserve. Wilson recently joined the DNRC after implementing Alberta’s aquatic invasive species program.

Mussels muscling into Montana

Clean, Drain Dry campaign aims to stop the spread
“I believe aquatic invasives are one of the biggest threats facing our fresh water, especially in the West.” — Kate Wilson, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s invasive species outreach specialist

Invasive zebra and quagga mussels may have been found in Montana recently, but Kate Wilson, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s invasive species outreach specialist, said there’s still hope for stopping the spread.

   The invasion of zebra mussels in the United States began in the late 1980s when they were introduced to the Great Lakes via cargo ships coming from the Black and Caspian seas. Since then the invasive bivalve has spread rapidly via the Mississippi River and beyond—filtering water, choking out native species, clogging pipes and slicing open countless feet in their wake.

   For a while it seemed the zebra and its larger, more cold-resistant counterpart—the quagga mussel—would steer clear of Montana. But in 2016, microscopic baby mussels known as veligers were found in the Tiber Reservoir in eastern Montana on the Marias River.

   The young mussels also were detected in Canyon Ferry Reservoir, but subsequent studies have not found any further evidence they took hold there. Testing and inspection continues for three years from original detection, and if no further mussels are found the water body will be cleared.

   The Tiber Reservoir was not as fortunate. While 2017 passed with no detection of invasive mussels, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced in January 2018 the baby mussels were detected again. Closures and check stations are now in place seven days a week for boaters launching and taking out at the Tiber.

   These small, fingernail-sized organisms wreak havoc on native aquatic species populations, thriving in cool water and reproducing at a rapid rate. A female can produce a million eggs a year in the right conditions. Once they’re found in a body of water, it’s just about impossible to eradicate them. That’s why across Montana check stations are now in place to look for mussels and other invasive aquatic species.

   In 2017, FWP inspected more than 86,000 boats at its 40 inspection stations—examining watercraft originating from nearly every U.S. state and many Canadian provinces. Seventeen of those were found to be transporting either zebra or quagga mussels into Montana. 

   This May, a boat—last launched in Sturgeon Bay, Wis.—was intercepted with mussels on an outboard motor at the Wibaux, Mont. inspection station. This was the fifth mussel-positive boat located in Montana at that time; two more were identified since then.

   Another method to stop the spread is community outreach via the “Clean, Drain, Dry” campaign and live presentations, including a recent one at the Jack Creek Preserve’s Outdoor Education Center on June 27 where the Big Sky and Ennis communities were invited to learn more about aquatic invasive species and how to curb their spread. 

   Wilson, the DNRC’s invasive species expert, became passionate about the issue 15 years ago while working in Sandpoint, Idaho where Eurasian milfoil had taken over. Herbicides were eventually applied by the state to eradicate the invasive plant, polarizing the community. At the time, boat inspections were nonexistent and there was no state funding for educational programs.

     “But a decade or so later, all western states have programs,” Wilson said. “We are doing better than ever… I believe aquatic invasives are one of the biggest threats facing our fresh water, especially in the West, because we still have a fighting chance here.”

     Wilson sees the issue as the intersection of a biological problem with a socio-political one.

     “It’s not like they’re getting here themselves. People bring them. We are moving things around more than we ever have before,” she said, showcasing a world map highlighting the paths cargo ships take to bring goods into the U.S. The ballast water from those boats gets released into U.S. waterways, and the spread begins. In the Great Lakes, there are currently 180 invasive aquatic species to contend with.

     Montana was the first state in the Columbia River Basin to test positive for invasive mussels. 

     “So, everyone downstream is looking at us,” Wilson said. “They’re saying, ‘Alright, Montana, how are you going to contain this problem?’ If it gets west of the divide, it’s going to affect all of us. So, we are under a microscope, but we have the best program we have ever had, and probably the best in the country.”

     But judging from other communities’ stories of rapid infestation, the prospect of stopping the spread can seem bleak. Wilson hopes to squash that sentiment.

     “I can say to the biggest cynic in the room, who’s like, ‘Look at those things, they’re coming, why do anything?’ that we save ourselves a heck of a lot of money every year that we keep them out. Because prevention is always going to cost less than responding to something of this magnitude,” Wilson said. “Every boat we inspect really does make a difference.”

     Of course, these programs cost money. Before starting her work in Montana, Wilson developed Alberta’s aquatic invasive species program. It was estimated the expense of dealing with an invasive mussel population there would conservatively cost more than $75 million—borne by the government, industry and residents. The University of Montana is currently working with the DNRC to get that estimate for this state. 

     “But whose problem, is it?” Wilson asked the room hypothetically. “The government isn’t the one bringing the boats in, industry is not bringing the boats in—or the irrigators, the municipalities, the hydro power.”

     In 2017, following the initial mussel detection, the Montana Legislature upped the prevention program budget, using a two-pronged approach. A majority of the funds come from a fee placed on hydropower, while the rest streams in from a $2 in-state and $15 out-of-state fee on fishing licenses. This generated $6.5 million to pay for the prevention program. It covers the extra attention needed at the two reservoirs currently under scrutiny, border patrol, waterway monitoring and education. 

     But that’s about to change. The state Environmental Quality Council is currently coming up with a new funding scheme for the next legislative session since hydropower companies were promised they would not be required to pay a fee moving forward. But how to get to that $6.5 million mark? Proposals include continued user fees, including a new fee for watercraft, a gas tax and more.

     Have thoughts on who should foot the bill for aquatic invasive prevention in Montana? Taxpayers? Irrigators? The public comment period is open until July 9. Email Wilson at kate.wilson@mt.gov with your input and visit cleandraindry.mt.gov.

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