Char-Koosta News

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SPCC Elders Committee hears about aquatic invasive species

By B.L. Azure
Char-Koosta News

ST. IGNATIUS — The Salish Pend d’Oreille Elders Committee were brought up to speed on the aquatic invasive species (AIS) problem that could potentially create a biological and economic nightmare if they make inroads on the Flathead Indian Reservation. In particular the AIS causing concern on the reservation are the zebra and quagga mussel and the potential for them to show up in the Flathead River Basin system that includes Flathead Lake, which are all a part of the Columbia River Basin.

The zebra and quagga mussels are a non-native species of America and Montana waterways that entered U.S. waterways via the ballast tanks of boats or ships. They were introduced in the Great Lakes in 1986 and have spread rapidly to every water basin in America except for the Columbia River Basin that the Flathead River Basin is a part of. It is the only un-invaded river basin in America and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are doing all they can to ensure that invasion won’t happen. The CSKT Natural Resources Department has been at the forefront of getting the information out by sponsoring a series of public meetings and also appearing at Tribal Council district meetings and the culture committees.

“We are the only watershed — the Columbia River Basin — in America without mussels,” said Georgia Smies, NRD Environmental Protection water quality specialist. “We want to keep it environmentally and economically healthy.”

The Montana economy is largely based on environmental well being, be it tourism or agriculture or any other natural resource development. They are at great risk if the mussels invade the Flathead River Basin and by extension the Columbia River Basin. They can cling to and clog up water pumps and pipelines, hydroelectric facilities, and can reduce property values by 20 percent near invaded areas.

The mussels are already in Montana. They have been detected east of the Continental Divide in the Taber Reservoir southwest of Chester and Canyon Ferry Reservoir east of Helena. Both feed into the Missouri River drainage.

“The mussels are already in the West, today they are in Montana,” Smies said. “We have infected waters in Montana that are only a few hours away from Flathead Lake. We are trying to be prepared. The only way they get around is because we carry them.”

Montana and the Flathead Lake are not newcomers when it comes to aquatic invasive species. In Flathead Lake introduced non-native species include the lake trout, lake whitefish, yellow perch kokanee salmon, rainbow trout, brook trout, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, northern pike to name a few. They have resulted in the decline or elimination of native species such as bull trout, west slope cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish, pygmy whitefish and pearmouth chub, among others. “Flathead Lake has already been hit by aquatic invasive species,” Smies said. “We are vulnerable. Once they get anchored in an area they are almost impossible to get rid of, they produce so fast and they race for space. They cover everything from the shore to real deep, they can cover the entire lake bottom.”

Within 10 years of invading the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan suffered an 80 percent loss of native fish species. It is an AIS war zone with once thriving tourist beach destinations laid waste with waste produced by the zebra or quagga mussel.

“Their waste concentrates on the lakeshore, when they die they have that rotten fish smell and the shells are razor sharp and cut feet,” Smies said. “The algae blooms create neurotoxins that can melt the livers of dogs. They are very harmful to humans too, especially the little kids.”

Through the years the quagga mussel has proven to be the tougher of the two AIS because, among other things, it can stand colder temperatures and infest water bodies deeper as well as breed earlier and later in a year.

Zebra and quagga mussels are now in 29 states because, among other things, humans and animals can and do transport them inadvertently for the most part or because of ignorance.

In the Great Lakes area Minnesota addressed the AIS situation more seriously than Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin did nothing about AIS now all its water bodies are affected,” Smies said. The cost of maintaining hydroelectric power has been passed on to ratepayers. “Now the Wisconsin power rates are four times higher than Minnesota. The Tribal Council wants to follow the Minnesota lead. They took AIS seriously and are very protective of the state’s waterways. They promote clean, drain and dry.”

Smies said public information, quarantine of potential invaded watercraft and the clean, drain and dry effort have paid off in Minnesota and Montana should follow that lead also.
“Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, proved that you can keep the mussels out,” Smies said. “The state partnered with the Minnesota tribes before implementing its campaign against the AIS. The best way to keep them out of water ways is to monitor water craft movement.”

“This comes down to risk,” said Paula Webster, NRD Environmental Protection program manager. “We prefer that boats in infected water bodies stay put.”

If the mussels eventually infest Flathead Lake, lake front property, now valued at $6-$8 billion could drop 13 to 19 percent within three years. The negative monetary impacts on tourism, hydropower and infrastructure are predicted to be $95 million.

“The last thing to know is that these things are not inevitable,” Smies said. “But we need to be serious about changing our boating practices. Minnesota is a great example of how to not succumb to the not inevitable. We can stop them but we need to work smart, work together, work hard and work now using a combination of all available methods of detection, management and eradication.”

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