Char-Koosta News

Another summer watercraft recreation season is upon us and it’s time to put up the dukes and stay vigilant in the fight against Aquatic Invasive Species. The most prominent AIS foe in the crosshairs of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is the zebra and quagga mussels, but also in the spotting scope are other invasive aquatic species as well as invasive weeds.

Preventing the infestation of a zebra and/or quagga mussel is paramount due to the economic and ecosystem damage that would cause. The Columbia River Basin, of which the Flathead River Basin and the Kootenai River Basin in Montana are a part of as headwater contributors, is the only major river basin in America that has not been infested by the zebra and quagga mussel.  

Zebra and quagga mussels are native to Eurasia. Until the mid 1980s there were no zebra mussels in North America. It is suspected that zebra mussels hitched a ride in ballast water tanks of commercial ships. Zebra mussels were first discovered in the United States in Lake St. Clair near Detroit, Michigan in 1988. 

Zebra/quagga mussels negatively impact aquatic ecosystems, harming native organisms (including already imperiled indigenous mussels). In huge numbers, they out-compete other filter feeders, starving them. They adhere to all hard surfaces, including the shells of native mussels, turtles, and crustaceans. Zebra/quagga mussels actively feed on green-algae and may increase the proportion of foul-smelling blue-green algae in water systems.

According to a 2019 Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation report, prevention, early detection and rapid response are considered the most cost-efficient weapons in the mussel invasion economic defensive arsenal. Once established, adult invasive mussels can’t be eradicated, that would mean damage mitigation and control are the only feasible responses. And that would cost an estimated $234 million a year.

Thus, it’s time to apply lessons learned to this summer’s ongoing battle against zebra and quagga mussels.

“The AIS program is gearing up for another busy season. Hiring is under way, and some stations are scheduled to open mid-March. We are looking at another busy season ahead. Operations for this year will be similar to 2020 with a few minor changes including extending the season at several border stations. High boat traffic is expected again so we are preparing accordingly,” the AIS program stated in its annual report. “As the COVID-19 restrictions begin to be lifted, we look forward to expanding opportunities to work with partners on AIS outreach, training, and coordination. Please let us know if your group is interested in AIS materials or learning more about what you can do to help protect our waters from AIS.” 

For more information, call 406-444-2440.

Looking back

Last year a total of 35 mussel-fouled watercraft vessels were intercepted during more than 174,000 inspections; also, more than 1,100 vessels with aquatic weeds were intercepted.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Aquatic Invasive Species Bureau, and partners performed 174,423 watercraft inspections this season. Of that total, FWP inspected 67,053 and contracted partner stations inspected 95,245 watercraft. 

Of the 174,423 watercraft that passed through inspection stations during the 2020 season, 117,609 were from Montana and 45,794 were from out of state. Other partners conducted the balance of those inspections including 10,366 from Glacier National Park and 1,759 from the City of Whitefish. 

Stations operated from late February to mid-November in 2020 with most stations operating between April and October. The July 4th holiday was the busiest period for boater movement.

The 2020 season had the highest number of inspections since the inception of the watercraft inspection station program. Totals include inspections at FWP stations, contracted stations and other partners conducting inspections in the state. 

The large increase in total inspections for 2020 is the result of increased in-state boating due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel, increased compliance, and improvements to the inspection data collection application that allows inspectors to record multiple boats during the interview process.

Enforcement and Compliance

Compliance at watercraft inspection stations continues to be a challenge. To address this, FWP installs signage, flagging and lighted message boards to clearly indicate the inspection station and the mandatory need to stop. Despite this fact, boaters sometimes fail to stop at the station. FWP wardens as well as partner programs such as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Fish and Game wardens dedicate time to work at stations throughout the season to enforce compliance. The CSKT also has the assistance of local police departments including CSKT Law Enforcement Department, Highway Patrol, and Lake County Sheriffs Office. 

When wardens aren’t present, station staff are trained to call 1- 800-TipMONT if a boat fails to stop at the station. Enforcement officers from FWP, state police or local enforcement then attempt to follow up with that watercraft. 

FWP wardens issued 279 AIS related citations and 308 warnings in 2020, most of these were for failure to stop at inspection stations. 

FWP wardens also stop boats on the water to ensure boaters have the proper safety equipment, check fishing licenses, vessel prevention pass, and verify boats have met mandatory inspection requirements for entering the state or crossing west over the Continental Divide. 

Additionally, the AIS prevention program worked closely with the law enforcement division to help direct where the greatest needs were concerning compliance. The enforcement division did a great job across the state, but also provided the program with coverage at the Anaconda station Thursday through Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day. From 2017-2020 compliance has continued to improve and data from the enforcement division demonstrations this over this period. 

Since 2017 there have been 504 citations and 903 warnings issued to boaters who drive by stations. Out of all of these encounters, only 9 times did they pull over a boater that had drove by a station a second time. This is 99.5 percent of all stops have been first time offenders. 

FWP partnerships:

  • Bighorn Conservation District: St. Xavier inspection station
  • Blackfeet Nation: Browning inspection station
  • Flathead Nation: Ravalli and Thompson Falls inspection stations
  • Garfield County Conservation District: Flowing Wells and Wibaux inspection stations
  • McCone Conservation District: Nashua inspection station
  • Missoula County Weed District: Clearwater Junction inspection station
  • Powder River Conservation District: Broadus inspection station

FWP coordinates closely with other partners that operate inspection stations in the state and provide training and other shared resources including Glacier National Park, the City of Whitefish, and Swan Lakers who all contribute to the watercraft inspection efforts in Montana.

Watercraft inspection plans for 2021: 

Watercraft inspection stations begin opening in mid-March to address snowbird traffic traveling from the Southwest. 

The first stations scheduled to open are: 

  • FWP Kalispell: March 1 
  • Ravalli: March 13
  • Dillion: March 13
  • Anaconda: March 20 

Inspection stations will continue to open into May and will operate throughout the boating season.

Changes for 2021 include: 

  • Updated watercraft inspection training
  • Targeted enforcement to improve compliance
  • Targeted efforts to improve quality control at inspection stations 
  • Improve acknowledgement and recognition for good inspectors 
  • Discontinuing inspections at Canyon Ferry 

Early Detection Monitoring

  • The AIS lab analyzed 2,706 samples from Montana waterbodies, a record number for the state. The lab also processed 887 samples from states in the Missouri River Basin in 2020. 
    • No evidence of mussels was found in Montana samples. 
    • New mussel populations were identified in Kansas and North Dakota waterbodies. 
  • The AIS lab implemented a risk categorization system to improve turnaround time on high-priority samples, ensuring samples from the highest risk locations are analyzed rapidly. The turnaround time for high-risk samples was less than two weeks. 
  • No evidence of invasive mussels was found in Tiber Reservoir in 2020. Sampling in Tiber included:
    • Collection and analysis of 111 veliger early detection samples 
    • Collection of 75 eDNA samples  (supported by Bureau of Reclamation and Flathead Lake Biological Station)
    • Collection of benthic sled bottom samples 
    • Snorkeling surveys
    • SCUBA surveys (USFWS)
    • Artificial substrates
    • Shoreline surveys
    • Mussel detection dogs 
  • An AIS Dive Team was created allowing FWP to conduct AIS survey, targeted control work, and rapid response for reported AIS. 

New detections of AIS in 2020 included: 

New Zealand Mudsnails

  • Bluewater Fish Hatchery, near Bridger (population eradicated) 
  • Marias River, below Tiber Dam
  • Missouri River, near Loma
  • Spring Meadow Lake, in Helena 

Faucet Snail

  • Smith Lake, near Whitefish
  • Lost Coon Lake, near Whitefish 

Curly Leaf pond weed

  • Lower Glaston Reservoir, north of Big Timber
  • Deadman’s Basin, near Harlowton 

Spiny water nymph (non-native aquatic plant) 

  • Frenchtown Pond, near Frenchtown
  • Private pond, near Frenchtown Pond 

Planning is underway to eradicate Asian clams from Lake Elmo in Billing by drawing down the lake in the fall of 2021.

2020 Accomplishments

Accomplishments during the 2020 watercraft inspection season include: 

  • Adapted to Covid-19 and associated challenges to overall operations. 
  • Over 174,000 watercraft inspections conducted by FWP and partners in Montana. A record number of inspections for the state. 
  • Record number of zebra and quagga mussel fouled vessels (35) intercepted and over 1,100 vessels intercepted transporting aquatic weeds. 
  • Continued strong partnerships to operate watercraft inspection stations state-wide including contracting with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (Ravalli and Thompson Falls), the Blackfeet Nation (Browning), Missoula County (Clearwater Junction), Garfield Conservation District (Wibaux and Flowing Wells), McCone Conservation District (Nashua), Bighorn Conservation District (St. Xavier), and Powder River Conservation District (Broadus). 
  • Coordination with partners on other non-FWP funded stations including Glacier and Yellowstone National Park and the City of Whitefish. 
  • Improved the WID mobile data application to improve data collection. 
  • Revamped watercraft inspection training including: An updated curriculum, a new training manual, a new student workbook, and smaller classes. 
  • An extended season at most stations (almost 9 months). 
  • Targeted law enforcement. 
  • Established a quality control program and communication plan. 
  • Improved drive by data collection. 

“The 2020 watercraft inspection season was highly successful. Even with all of the challenges we face, Covid-19 being a big one for 2020, we did more inspections, had greater compliance, intercepted more mussel boats, kept our staff safe, and made many improvements. Overall, FWP recruited many outstanding people to serve in inspector positions across the state. Their professionalism and dedication to this issue were instrumental in stations running smoothly and in getting people checked and on their way as quickly as possible. Many improvements have been put into place in 2020 and the program will continue to adjust and improve to make the program more effective and efficient,” FWP said in a statement. “Knowledge and awareness of the issues surrounding AIS continues to increase because of the outreach and education efforts across Montana. Many thanks to all our partners around the state. A special thanks to Missoula County Weed District, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, The Blackfeet Nation, Garfield County Conservation District, Glacier National Park, Whitefish Lake Institute and the City of Whitefish, McCone County Conservation District, Bighorn County Conservation District, and Powder River Conservation District.”

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