More muscle needed against mussels, Basin Commission says

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A closure sign at the boat launch at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park.

With the detection of invasive mussels last November in the Tiber Reservoir, Montana lost its status as one of the last few states free of zebra or quagga mussels.

These mussels may be small, but they cause big problems. When they hitch a ride on watercraft or in bilge water and travel between water bodies, they reproduce quickly and have a host of negative effects, including structural damage, water chemistry changes, and algal blooms.

They also rob native species of food and habitat. As the mussels infest water bodies increasingly closer to the Flathead Basin, conservation organizations are scrambling to develop new plans for prevention and management. The current state plan for managing aquatic invasive species includes three links in a “protective tripod,” as Thompson Smith, Chair of the Flathead Basin Commission called it during a meeting last week.

The first link is perimeter defense stations. The second is a Continental Divide firewall, which is a series of mandatory checkpoints on road passages near the Divide. The third tier is containment and decontamination of infested areas on the Missouri River.

Despite these measures, the Flathead Basin is “still in a very imperiled position,” Smith said.

No AIS management strategies can be completely effective, and now that infested areas are as close as two or three hours from the Flathead Basin, “we absolutely need an added layer of protection in Flathead,” Smith claimed.

The commission is calling for an additional local program of enforcement and monitoring, which will include more than just signs and statewide inspection stations.

The programs proposed by the commission would complement and bolster the statewide effort to manage invasives, not compete with it.

The group suggested that only significant monetary penalties (much more than $500) are consequential to wealthy boaters, so fines may be increased as invasive programs are strengthened.

Members of the FBC also noted the difficulty in acquiring both authority and funding for enforcement of invasive management regulations. They estimate it will cost about $500,000 over the next four years to create and man local stations.

Another aspect of protection for the Flathead Basin is outreach and education by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who reported that expenses of $150,000 since November have been used for inspection stations and other measures.

Additionally, canine mussel detection units in the area can sniff out invasives. Glacier National Park and other agencies used dogs last season to inspect boats.

Recently the Whitefish City Council successfully passed an ordinance for mandatory inspection of watercraft. The AIS prevention plan was passed for two key reasons: the importance of Whitefish Lake as a municipal drinking water source, and the location of the lake at the headwaters of the Columbia River Basin. If mussels invade Whitefish Lake, they could quickly encroach on the entire basin.

Whitefish Lake is easier to manage than other bodies in the Flathead Basin, as it only has two major access points for high-risk watercraft.

The Whitefish plan involves inspection and decontamination in the on-season, as well as boat stickers for inspected vehicles. In the off-season, people seeking recreational use of the lake must demonstrate knowledge of invasives prevention procedures by taking an online test, which grants them self-certification and access keycodes for the locked gates at the lake.

Owners of hand-launched, lower-risk watercraft can obtain stickers through the same self-certification process, which helps the city of Whitefish manage the diffuse, unmarked points that smaller, unmotorized watercraft can use for lake access.

Additionally, surveillance cameras and threats of fines for noncompliance round out the management and enforcement plan approved by the Whitefish community. The Whitefish plan took $230,000 to implement, most of which was donated by the community.

Commission members agreed that the Whitefish program is a complete model for success, with all the necessary details mapped out. They hope that other programs in the Flathead Basin will be as effective. they said.

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