Vigilant dedication pays off at the CSKT Ravalli AIS inspection station

Char-Koosta News 

RAVALLI — Think about this: a zebra or quagga mussel the size a thumbnail could be the only nail needed in the coffin of the Northwest aquatic ecosystem. The invasive zebra and quagga mussels have no natural predators that combat its endless hunger that devours aquatic ecosystems in ever growing numbers due to its rapid reproduction. There is no wiggle room, no time off — only constant wide-eyed vigilance when it comes to prevention of an infestation of the mussels in Flathead Lake. 

That wide-eyed vigilance paid off big time recently at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Ravalli Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) inspection station. The Tribes manage the station via a Fish, Wildlife and Parks contract along with tribal funds. 

Week before last a commercial truck transported a boat from the Chicago area that recently launched in Lake Michigan but wasn’t inspected for mussels before transport. 

The transport vehicle and boat entered Montana on I-94, and was “inspected” at the Wibaux station September 25, and issued the paperwork indicating it was mussel-free. 

Later that day the boat stopped at the Anaconda station, the transport driver showed the inspector the Wibaux station paperwork and it was green lighted without being inspected. That was not following FWP AIS protocol that requires all watercraft to be inspected regardless of paperwork indicating it was already inspected.

The next day the boat was inspected at the Ravalli station by station-manager JaBleau Arlee, Lacey Burke and Mitch Parker. They didn’t need Sherlock Holmes’ magnifying glass to see the clearly visible adult mussels ensconced on the hull of the boat. It was the second boat with mussels that JaBleau and crew caught this summer; in all 15 fouled watercraft were caught out of 112,000 inspections statewide this summer and fall. 

“The adult mussels on the side of the boat were very visible,” Arlee said. “What we need now is that all the stations remain open 24/7, especially along the eastern Montana border to better the chances of mussels being detected before launching in Montana.”

Montana FWP AIS Bureau Chief Tom Woolf says inspection stations managed by “partners” like the Flathead and Blackfeet Nations, various conservation districts and governmental entities is a preferable option. He also has stated that there has to be more and frequent training on managing the stations so all inspectors are on the same page when it comes to inspection protocols. Clearly protocols weren’t followed at the Wibaux and Anaconda stations.

The Wibaux station was managed by Garfield Conservation District under the auspices of a FWP contract. Woolf also stated that finding dependable inspectors from a small labor pool at the remote Wibaux station has been difficult. Moving the station is an option Woolf is considering.

Other strategies for improvement of the inspection stations, include: finding and keeping quality inspectors; expand supervision and oversight, and contract stations; revise training, simplify protocols, improve work environment; have roving trainers; and, potentially have on-site cameras. 

“No mussels have gotten through us this year. But this is how mussels will get through even if the boats are sealed up with the proper paper work. We are all trained the same way. I can’t understand how they got through the other stations,” Arlee said in reference of the lackadaisical non-inspections at Wibaux and Anaconda — clearly a violation of protocols that require all watercraft be inspected at every station they encounter regardless of paperwork in hand. “We look at every boat. The first boat we found mussels on in July had a seal. It had passed through other stations that honored the seal and let it go without inspection. We still checked it out regardless of the seal and found the mussels. Redundancy, redundancy, redundancy pays off. It is important.”

So is crew leadership and training.

“I keep telling the crew — what they already know — that if we let a boat go from this station it would mean the end of Flathead Lake,” Arllee said. “I ask the guys to make sure it’s clean or our lake is gone.”

Arlee said he is thankful for the assistance of Lake County Sheriff’s Office, CSKT Law Enforcement, and tribal dispatch personnel for their work getting the word out about drive-bys to law enforcement and on the scanners.

The proper protocols were on display Saturday.

The AIS inspectors at the Ravalli watercraft inspection station were moderately busy with various types of watercraft stopping to get inspected.

One of the boat owners who stopped for an inspection was John Yobst of Missoula, a lifelong water recreation enthusiast, who just happens to have grown up in Michigan. He saw first hand the environmental damages wreaked on Lake Michigan and its ecosystem by the zebra- and quagga-mussels infestation. 

“I remember those things. They grew so fast in the Great Lakes,” he said. “I remember how the mussel shells — they’re sharp — would cut my feet on the beaches on Lake Michigan.”

Zebra mussels originated in the Black and Caspian seas drainages between Europe and Asia. The mussels were first detected in America in the mid-1980s. Ships from Europe transferred the mussels in ballast water into the Hudson River in New York. The mussels relatively quickly infested the Great Lakes. 

Since the initial infestation they have infested every river basin in the United States except the Columbia River Basin that includes the Clarkfork, Kootenai and Flathead rivers basins in Montana.

Yobst, who regularly makes the Missoula-to-Flathead Lake trip, has stopped at the Ravalli station many times this summer to get inspected. He said he understands the need for the inspections because of his Lake Michigan mussel experience, and doesn’t want to see that happen to Flathead Lake. It would be the death knell for the ecosystem of the relatively pristine lake. He praised the dedication and diligence of the Ravalli inspectors as well as the commitment of the CSKT for keeping the station open longer daily and seasonally.

“This is absolutely the best way to do these stations, keep them open 24/7,” he said. “Why can’t they do this at the Clearwater station. They close down at 6 (p.m.) and there are still three or more hours of daylight left and boats on the road. Are you kidding me? That’s not very effective.”

Yobst said he water recreates/skiing on Flathead Lake until December. The December skiing started in his youth and became a tradition him to end his Flathead Lake boating by skiing it in December. 

He said there would still be a lot of boats coming to Flathead Lake after the Ravalli inspection station closes for the season, October 15 — it should stay open longer, at least until the end of Mack Days in early November.

“This place is special, it needs to be watched closely. One person can screw this up,” Yobst said about Flathead Lake. The lake is part of the Columbia River Basin if it gets infested so does the larger basin, the only zebra- and quagga-free river basin in the lower 48 states, “Then there is no going back.”

Yobst said he is well aware of the “Clean, Drain and Dry” public information campaign and practices it religiously. He also displays Clean, Drain and Dry stickers on his boat and pickup. 

The word is out and hopefully people are getting the message like Yobst. It is vital that they do and become part of the solution instead of the problem.

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