Char-Koosta News 

PABLO — One of the main uncertainties with the Aquatic Invasive Species battle against the potential infestation of zebra and/or quagga mussels was given a bit of certainty with the passage of legislation by the 66th Montana Legislature that permanently funds the effort.

“There has been a lot of changes in the (AIS) program the last couple of years,” said AIS Bureau Chief Tom Woolf at last week’s quarterly meeting of the Flathead Basin Commission. The mission of the FBC is to protect the high quality of the Flathead Lake aquatic environment; the waters that flow into, out of, or are tributary to Flathead Lake and the natural resources and environment of the Flathead Basin. The Montana Legislature created the FBC in 1983. 

Chief among the changes is the permanent funding of the AIS battle.

The 66th Montana Legislature put a financial foundation under the Aquatic Invasive Species effort with the passage of legislation to fund the anti-infestation battle to a tune of $4.6 million in annual funding for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. On top of that is $650,000 to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for an annual total of $5,150,000.

The funds come from hydroelectric operation fees, prevention pass-on fishing licenses, out of state motorized and non-motorized boat fees, bed tax and general funds from increased broker fees. Some of the fees will not go into effect till next boating season.

The Legislature also passed mandatory ballast boat decontamination for ballast watercraft entering Montana and crossing west over the Continental Divide. Thankfully the decontamination is chemical free and requires 140-degree water for outside decontamination and 170-degree water for inside ballasts.

“We have expanded our partnerships,” Woolf said about the agreements to staff some of the watercraft inspection stations as well as increased participation in monitoring and outreach efforts. Some of the partnerships include those with the Flathead and Blackfeet nations, Missoula County, and a handful of conservation districts throughout the state. 

Other changes include moving of some watercraft check stations while closing others to effectively check the AIS transport risk. In western Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have closed its Elmo site and now staff the Plains watercraft inspection station. They also staff the Ravalli station that is now open 24/7.

There has been AIS program staff reorganization, renewal of Flathead Lake inspection before launch rule, updated data systems for inspection and monitoring, and designation as Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park as lead agency for aquatic plant issues.

“We have had 26,000 inspections so far this year,” Woolf said. “We have found 11 mussel fouled vessels.” 

There are presently 30 inspection stations with more than 200 FWP and partner AIS staff manning the stations. They include the two staffed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and one by the Blackfeet Tribe; three eastern Montana stations staffed by conservation districts; and, Glacier National Park, Bighorn National Recreation Area and Whitefish Lake.

Woolf said that watercraft entering or passing through Montana en route to Washington would be inspected at least twice. “Every state in the west has inspection stations,” he said. “We are getting better data out there. All are using the same data system forms and protocols.”

The next FBC meeting is in September, site to be determined.

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