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PNWER gains funding to fight aquatic invaders

By Rep. Mike Cuffe
Montana House District 2

Rep. Mike Cuffe, Montana House District 2Rep. Mike Cuffe, Montana House District 2

We must keep Quagga and Zebra mussels out of Montana!  Preventive efforts may be doubled thanks to PNWER, the legislative association with the “gold standard reputation” for Canada/U.S. relations.

PNWER leadership, which held a large convention at Big Sky last July, lobbied diligently for federal funding to match state expenditures for both prevention and monitoring of these aquatic invaders.  As vice president of PNWER (Pacific NorthWest Economic Region), I visited Washington, D.C. twice to encourage dozens of congressmen, senators and staffers to support the proposal.  Yes, Congressman Zinke and Senators Daines and Tester provided support.  

The 2016 federal budget directed $4 million for preventive efforts to be distributed through U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  I recently learned that the same funding plus $1 million for monitoring has been approved by both Senate and House Appropriations Committees for 2017.  The funding will be included in the large Omnibus bill coming forward this autumn.  It will match dollars spent in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

The importance of boat check stations was magnified when inspectors found mussels attached to the bottom of a pontoon boat at a Flathead Basin Commission inspection point in Pablo.  Snowbirds returning from Arizona’s Lake Havasu had the boat inspected and cleaned before starting home, but several shells the diameter of a pencil eraser were clinging to a seam on a pontoon.  Eventually, it was determined the mussels were dead.  By chance, I was present when the boat arrived.      

The boat owner was amazed, and he asked me what harm mussels would cause. These aquatic invaders came to America in ballast water from the Black Sea via the Great Lakes and rapidly spread to all states except the northwest corner.  They thrive and multiply very rapidly.  They feed by filtering out the tiny organisms that are the beginning of the food chain, so fisheries soon suffer while water becomes crystal clear.  Swimmers must wear tennis shoes as protection from sharp shells fastened to rocks.  Mussel shells fasten to water treatment systems, irrigation systems, hydropower generating equipment, and dams. 

Mussels can live for weeks outside of water.  They can hide within personal watercraft engines.   Best way to kill them is with a hot water cleaner, but don’t wash them off where they may get into non-contaminated water.  If you have a question or concern or see a boat that could be fouled, please notify a game warden or call 1-800-TIPMONT, 1-800-847-6668.  

Most mussel-fouled boats entering Montana come from the Great Lakes or Snowbird country.  Mussels can be spread by any watercraft or even construction floats coming from lakes and streams in most states and numerous provinces.  They are typically found by visual inspection, by feeling tiny bumps on smooth surfaces, and by mussel sniffing dogs.  Dangle a tennis shoe, a license plate, a boat propeller or a piece of pipe in Lake Mead for six to twelve months and you will be shocked at how it becomes encrusted with layers of shells.       

Nobody wants foreign mussels, but when you find them, you got them.  By then, they have been growing for two to three years.  Nobody can get rid of them.  If they move into PNWER’s four northwest states, the estimated annual cost to cope with them is $500 million ($80 million in Montana). 

Currently Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana collectively spend less than $4 million per year for preventive measures like boat check stations.  We are still playing Russian roulette since we only check boats during peak travel months and only during peak travel times.  Federal funding will help.

PNWER, which consists of five states and five provinces, continues to be a key player.  We developed a regional plan and push hard for federal funding, we target Aquatic Invasive Species through presentations and working groups; we arranged a Canadian conference in British Columbia this winter.  We educate leaders in both Canada and U.S. 

In 2013, I carried the legislation to set up the Montana AIS program.  We don’t need more regulations and greater penalty.  Just extend hours and months of inspection stations. 

Speaking at the Montana Invasive Species Advisory Council recently, I said:  “Spread the word!  Get some catchy You Tube videos going viral, get some notable voices and faces making Public Service Announcements on television and radio, hold informational programs at Snowbird cluster areas, encourage Cabella’s and other big retailers and manufacturers of sporting goods to provide pamphlets and videos of the problem.” 

In closing, hats off to the diligent efforts of Flathead Basin Commission and all FWP boat inspectors.  Good luck to the Montana Invasive Species Advisory Council.  Weeds are a big problem, but aquatic mussel invaders signal game over.       

Rep. Mike Cuffe lives in Eureka and represents most of rural Lincoln County.  He serves on Appropriations Committee, and in 2015 he chaired the Approps Joint Long Range Planning Subcommittee.  He is chair of the Administrative Committee for Consumer Counsel which deals with matters before Public Service Commission.  Cuffe is PNWER vice president.  He is seeking his fourth term in the House.

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